Multidrug resistance protein (MRP) and P-glycoprotein (Pgp) are both members of the superfamily of ATP binding cassette plasma membrane drug transport proteins, which may be partly responsible for multidrug resistance of tumor cells. Although MRP has been identified as an organic anion transporter and Pgp as a transporter of certain positively charged compounds, there is considerable overlap in resistance spectrum, suggesting that both proteins transport important anticancer agents such as doxorubicin, etoposide, and vincristine. To obtain more insight in the handling of drugs by both proteins, we performed a detailed kinetic analysis of the efflux of calcein-acetoxymethyl ester (CAL-AM), a common neutral substrate for both proteins and compared it with the kinetics of efflux of calcein (CAL) which is only effluxed by MRP. CAL, the hydrolysis product of the nonfluorescent CAL-AM, is negatively charged and highly fluorescent. For this purpose Pgp+ K562/ADR and MRP+ GLC4/ADR tumor cells were incubated with CAL-AM in ATP-rich or ATP-depleted buffer, and the calcein formation was followed in time by fluorescence development. The intracellular CAL could be distinguished from effluxed (extracellular) CAL by addition to the medium of Co2+, which completely quenched the extracellular CAL fluorescence. The results showed that the Vmax for efflux of CAL-AM and CAL by MRP were very similar (1.0-1.2 x 10(5) molecules/cell/s) but that the Km for CAL-AM was much lower (0.05 microM) than for CAL (268 microM). The latter therefore is much less efficiently transported by MRP than CAL-AM. The Km for CAL-AM transport by Pgp (0.12 microM) was similar to that for MRP. Compared to previously published data for anthracyclines, the kinetic data for MRP-mediated CAL-AM pumping are most similar to those for the neutral hydroxydaunorubicin. These data give a quantitative account of transport properties of MRP for two related but differently charged compounds.