The intense intrinsic fluorescence emissions from several clinically relevant camptothecin drugs have been exploited in order to study the structural basis of drug binding to human serum albumin. Both HPLC and time-resolved fluorescence spectroscopic methodologies were employed to characterize the associations of camptothecins with HSA in phosphate-buffered saline (pH 7.4) at 37 degrees C. The alpha-hydroxy delta-lactone ring moiety of camptothecin (C), 10-hydroxycamptothecin (HC), 10,11-(methylenedioxy)camptothecin (MC) and 9-chloro-10,11-(methylenedioxy)camptothecin (CMC) was in each case observed to hydrolyze more rapidly and completely in the presence of HSA than in the protein's absence. Binding isotherms constructed by the method of fluorescence lifetime titration showed that HSA bound preferentially the carboxylate forms of C, HC, MC, and CMC over their lactone forms, thereby providing an explanation for the shift to the right in the lactone-carboxylate equilibrium observed for each compound upon HSA addition. In marked contrast, three analogues (SN-38, CPT-11, and topotecan) all displayed enhanced stabilities in the presence of HSA. While the lifetimes of CPT-11, topotecan, and the carboxylate forms of both drugs were insensitive to the addition of HSA, the lifetimes of both SN-38 and its carboxylate form did titrate upon HSA addition. Analysis of binding isotherms constructed for the albumin interactions of SN-38 and its carboxylate form demonstrated a higher overall association constant for the lactone form [640 (M amino acid (aa) residues)-1] relative to the carboxylate form [150 (M aa)-1]. Our studies indicate that specific modifications at the 7- and 9-positions of the quinoline nucleus, such as those contained in CPT-11, topotecan, and SN-38, enhance drug stability in the presence of HSA. In the case of SN-38, the enhanced stability was shown to be due to preferential associations between the drug's lactone form and the blood protein.