The relevance of P170-glycoprotein (P-gp) and multidrug resistance-associated protein (MRP) for the sensitivity to CPT-11 was investigated in human malignant cell lines as well as in human tumour xenografts. In vitro, the P-gp-positive sublines BRO/mdr1.1 (transfected with MDR1) and 2780AD were slightly cross-resistant against carboxylesterase-activated CPT-11. Cross-resistance against SN-38 was present in 2780AD cells, but not in BRO/mdr1.1 cells. The P-gp modulators BIBW22BS, verapamil and dexniguldipine partly reversed the resistance against CPT-11 in the P-gp-positive sublines. BIBW22BS was the most effective modulator in the reversal of the resistance against carboxylesterase-activated CPT-11 as well as against SN-38 in the 2780AD subline. In contrast to doxorubicin and vincristine, the BRO/mdr1.1 xenografts were at least as sensitive to CPT-11 as the BRO xenografts. The 2780AD xenografts were slightly less sensitive than the parent tumours, but there was no difference in topoisomerase I DNA unwinding activity. Therefore, the high retention of the multidrug-resistant phenotype of 2780AD cells in vivo may be the cause of the low cross-resistance against CPT-11. The MRP-positive subline GLC4/ADR was cross-resistant against carboxylesterase-activated CPT-11 and SN-38. GLC4/ADR cells, however, demonstrated a twofold lower topoisomerase I activity than GLC4 cells. Cross-resistance against the camptothecin derivatives was not apparent in the MRP-transfected subline of SW1573/S1. In conclusion, P-gp-positive cells show a low cross-resistance against CPT-11/SN38, which is only apparent with high P-gp expression in vivo. MRP does not seem to play a role in the sensitivity to CPT-11.