Irinotecan hydrochloride (CPT-11), an antitumor camptothecin derivative, causes severe forms of diarrhea clinically. We characterized CPT-11-induced diarrhea histologically and enzymologically and assessed the relationships between intestinal toxicity and the activity of the enzymes that play a key role in the major metabolic pathway of CPT-11 in rats. CPT-11 (60 mg/kg i.v. for 4 days) induced intestinal toxicity characterized by severe chronic diarrhea, loss of body weight, and anorexia. Histological damage was most severe in the cecum. The segmental difference in the degree of the damage showed good correlation with the beta-glucuronidase activity in the contents of the lumen in each case, but not with the intestinal tissue carboxylesterase activity, which converts CPT-11 to its active form (7-ethyl-10-hydroxycamptothecin). Inhibition of the beta-glucuronidase activity in the intestinal microflora by antibiotics (1 mg penicillin and 2 mg streptomycin per ml of drinking water) markedly ameliorated the diarrhea and reduced cecal damage. Analysis of CPT-11 and its metabolites in the feces indicated that antibiotics completely inhibited the deconjugation of the glucuronic conjugate of 7-ethyl-10-hydroxycamptothecin by beta-glucuronidase. It is suggested that CPT-11-induced diarrhea would be attributable to the damage to the cecum, and that the inhibition of the beta-glucuronidase activity in the intestinal microflora is a major protective effect of antibiotics.