Although conjugation with glucuronic acid is a major process for converting many xenobiotics into hydrophilic, excretable metabolites, relatively little has been reported concerning interindividual variability of glucuronidation in human populations. Oxazepam, a therapeutically active metabolite of diazepam, is one of a number of C3-hydroxylated benzodiazepines for which glucuronide conjugation is the predominant pathway of biotransformation. The drug is normally formulated as a racemic mixture of inactive (R) and active (S) enantiomers. In the present study we have investigated the use of oxazepam as a potential probe drug for studying the variability of glucuronide conjugation, and for demonstrating the extent to which genetic factors may be responsible. In preliminary studies we determined oxazepam pharmacokinetics metabolite profiles after administration of racemic (R,S) oxazepam to eleven human volunteers. The (S) glucuronide was preferentially formed and excreted in nine of the eleven subjects. The ratios of (S) to (R) glucuronide metabolites (S/R ratios) were 3.87 +/- 0.79 (mean +/- SD) and 3.52 +/- 0.60 in urine and plasma, respectively. However, both ratios were significantly lower in two subjects (p < 0.01). In these two atypical subjects, the half-life of (R,S) oxazepam was also markedly longer (14.7 and 15.9 h) than in the other subjects (8.1 +/- 3.2 h). A good correlation (rs = 0.90) between the S/R-glucuronide ratio in urine and the plasma clearance of (R,S) oxazepam suggested that a low S/R ratio may be a marker of poor elimination of oxazepam. In further investigations, the drug was administered to 66 additional subjects. The S/R-glucuronide ratio in 8 h pooled urine was bimodally distributed, with 10% of all subjects possessing ratios below an apparent antimode of 1.9. A survey of the in vitro formation of oxazepam glucuronides by microsomes from 37 human livers also showed that 10% of the livers displayed an abnormally high apparent Michaelis constant (Km) for the formation of the (S) glucuronide, but not of the (R) glucuronide. These results suggest that the glucuronidation of the pharmacologically active (S) enantiomer of oxazepam is decreased in a significant percentage (10%) of Caucasian individuals. The observed in vitro differences in apparent kinetics of the S-glucuronidation reaction may reflect defects at the genetic level, leading to structural changes in the isozyme(s) of UDP-glucuronyltransferase that catalyse this reaction.