The inhibition of thymidylate synthase (TS) as a drug development target has received much attention in recent years, and several compounds have reached clinical evaluation. During drug development, the effectiveness of target inhibition can be assessed by determination of the perturbations of deoxythymidine 5-triphosphate (TTP) and deoxyuridine 5'-monophosphate (dUMP) pools in drug-treated cells. Rapid, sensitive, and reproducible radioimmunoassays for TTP pools and immunoreactive dUMP pools have been developed to meet our requirement for the rapid assessment of TS inhibition by quinazoline antifolates. The assays can be carried out on 1-2 million cells, and require minimal sample preparation. The limit of detection for TTP is 1 pmole/10(6) cells and for immunoreactive dUMP ("dUMP"), 3.0 pmole/10(6) cells, both assays being performed on the same cell extract. TTP and "dUMP" pools have been measured in mouse L1210 leukaemia cells treated with the quinazoline antifolates ZD1694 (N-(5-[N-(3,4-dihydro-2-methyl-4-oxoquinazolin-6-ylmethyl )-N-methylamine]-2-thenoyl)-L-glutamic acid) and CB30900 (N-[N-[4-[N-[(3,4-dihydro-2,7-dimethyl-4-oxo-6-quinazolinyl)methyl ]-N-prop-2- ynylamino]-2-fluorobenzoyl]-L-gamma-glutamyl]-D-glutamic acid). Unlike ZD1694, CB30900 is a TS inhibitor that does not rely on polyglutamation for activity. In L1210 cells, both compounds caused a rapid inhibition of TTP pools in a dose- and time-related manner. Greater than 90% TS inhibition was achieved following a 4-hr exposure to each compound at equitoxic doses (up to 100 times the IC50 determine by a 48-hr growth inhibition assay). For both compounds, this was accompanied by a 5-10-fold increase in "dUMP" pools. For ZD1694, neither the TTP pool or "dUMP" levels were normalised when cells were resuspended in a drug-free medium for 4 hr and, at the higher doses studied, TS was still inhibited after a 16-hr period in the absence of drug. This is consistent with the formation and intracellular retention of potent polyglutamated forms of ZD1694. In contrast, TS activity as determined by repletion of the TTP pools and normalisation of "dUMP" levels were demonstrated for CB30900. However, at a high dose (50 microM, equivalent to 250 times the IC50), retention of TS inhibition was observed following 4 hr, but not 16 hr in the absence of drug. The radioimmunoassays described will prove useful to further define the extent and time-course of TS inhibition by novel antifolate compounds, and will also provide valuable in vitro and in vivo pharmacodynamic information on established antimetabolites when used alone or in combination with other drugs and modulators.