We have analyzed five human melanoma cell lines, displaying variable doxorubicin resistance (1- to 6-fold), for drug-induced DNA breaks, topoisomerase II activity and mRNA expression. Enhanced drug efflux was not the reason for doxorubicin resistance of these tumor cells although they overexpressed the transmembrane 170 kDa P-glycoprotein. Doxorubicin-induced DNA lesions (2-fold) and topoisomerase II activity (7-fold) were higher in HM-1 and G361 cells than in the less doxorubicin-sensitive NH and FCCM-9 cells. Topoisomerase II mRNA expression was also 2-fold higher in HM-1 and G361 cells. Doxorubicin-induced DNA breaks and topoisomerase II activity inversely correlated with the degree of doxorubicin sensitivity. Southern blot analysis showed variation in the hybridization pattern of topoisomerase II gene in doxorubicin-resistant cells when compared to sensitive cells. This study portrays the low doxorubicin sensitivity of NH and FCCM-9 cells as "atypical" and emphasizes the importance of DNA damage and topoisomerase II activity in cellular low doxorubicin resistance.