Intrinsic and acquired multidrug resistance (MDR) in many human cancers may be due to expression of the multidrug transporter P-glycoprotein (Pgp), which is encoded by the mdr1 gene. There is substantial evidence that Pgp is expressed both as an acquired mechanism (e.g., in leukemias, lymphomas, myeloma, and breast and ovarian carcinomas) and constitutively (e.g., in colorectal and renal cancers) and that its expression is of prognostic significance in many types of cancer. Clinical trials of MDR modulation are complicated by the presence of multiple-drug-resistance mechanisms in human cancers, the pharmacokinetic interactions that result from the inhibition of Pgp in normal tissues, and, until recently, the lack of potent and specific inhibitors of Pgp. A large number of clinical trials of reversal of MDR have been undertaken with drugs that are relatively weak inhibitors and produce limiting toxicities at doses below those necessary to inhibit Pgp significantly. The advent of newer drugs such as the cyclosporin PSC 833 (PSC) provides clinicians with more potent and specific inhibitors for MDR modulation trials. Understanding how modulators of Pgp such as PSC 833 affect the toxicity and pharmacokinetics of cytotoxic agents is fundamental for the design of therapeutic trials of MDR modulation. Our studies of combinations of high-dose cyclosporin (CsA) or PSC 833 with etoposide, doxorubicin, or paclitaxel have produced data regarding the role of Pgp in the clinical pharmacology of these agents. Major pharmacokinetic interactions result from the coadministration of CsA or PSC 833 with MDR-related anticancer agents (e.g., doxorubicin, daunorubicin, etoposide, paclitaxel, and vinblastine). These include increases in the plasma area under the curve and half-life and decreases in the clearance of these cytotoxic drugs, consistent with Pgp modulation at the biliary lumen and renal tubule, blocking excretion of drugs into the bile and urine. The biological and medical implications of our studies include the following. First, Pgp is a major organic cation transporter in tissues responsible for the excretion of xenobiotics (both drugs and toxins) by the biliary tract and proximal tubule of the kidney. Our clinical data are supported by recent studies in mdr-gene-knockout mice. Second, modulation of Pgp in tumors is likely to be accompanied by altered Pgp function in normal tissues, with pharmacokinetic interactions manifesting as inhibition of the disposition of MDR-related cytotoxins (which are transport substrates for Pgp). Third, these pharmacokinetic interactions of Pgp modulation are predictable if one defines the pharmacology of the modulating agent and the combination. The interactions lead to increased toxicities such as myelosuppression unless doses are modified to compensate for the altered disposition of MDR-related cytotoxins. Fourth, in serial studies where patients are their own controls and clinical resistance is established, remissions are observed when CsA or PSC 833 is added to therapy, even when doses of the cytotoxin are reduced by as much as 3-fold. This reversal of clinical drug resistance occurs particularly when the tumor cells express the mdr1 gene. Thus, tumor regression can be obtained without apparent increases in normal tissue toxicities. In parallel with these trials, we have recently demonstrated in the laboratory that PSC 833 decreases the mutation rate for resistance to doxorubicin and suppresses activation of mdr1 and the appearance of MDR mutants. These findings suggest that MDR modulation may delay the emergence of clinical drug resistance and support the concept of prevention of drug resistance in the earlier stages of disease and the utilization of time to progression as an important endpoint in clinical trials. Pivotal phase III trials to test these concepts with PSC 833 as an MDR modulator are under way or planned for patients with acute myeloid leukemias, multiple myeloma, and ovarian carcinoma.