The functional contribution of both P-glycoprotein (P-gp) and the multidrug resistance-associated protein (MRP) to multidrug resistance (MDR) in tumor cells is commonly determined by drug cytotoxicity and/or accumulation/efflux tests. We report on a bioassay developed for the specific detection of functional P-gp levels and the efficacy of related chemosensitizers (CD-P-gp-assay). The assay is based on the flow cytometric measurement of changes in the > or = G2M cell cycle compartment which are due to the induction of polykaryons after exposure of proliferating cells to three defined cytochalasin D (CD) concentrations with and without verapamil. As demonstrated in 13 well-characterized MDR cell models (20 resistant sublines), there is a significant correlation between cytokinesis-blocking CD doses, as well as responsiveness to chemosensitizers and MDR1 gene expression (mRNA and P-gp) allowing discrimination between different levels of P-gp-MDR. CD-P-gp-assay specificity was assessed by testing 23 compounds: 19 known as potent inhibitors of P-gp-MDR, some of them, though to a lesser extent, also of MRP-MDR; 1 inhibiting MRP-but not P-gp-MDR; 3 inactive in both types of MDR. A modulation of CD activity was confined exclusively to both P-gp-expressing cell lines and P-gp chemosensitizers. CD cytoskeletal activity measured by FACS is a specific and sensitive tool with which to detect functional P-gp and related chemosensitizers.