Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a common lethal disease in Asia and there is no effective chemotherapy. Identification of new effective drugs in the treatment of inoperable HCC is urgently need. This is a phase II clinical study to investigate the efficacy, toxicity and pharmacokinetics of paclitaxel in HCC patients. Twenty patients with measurable, unresectable HCC, normal serum bilirubin, normal bone marrow and renal functions were studied. Paclitaxel 175 mg m(-2) was given intravenously over 3 h every 3 weeks. No complete or partial responses were observed. Five patients had stable disease. Major treatment toxicities (grade 3-4) were neutropenia (25%), thrombocytopenia (15%), infection (10%) and allergy (10%). Treatment-related deaths occurred in two patients. The median survival was 12 weeks (range 1-36). Paclitaxel is metabolized by the liver and the pharmacokinetics of paclitaxel in cancer patients with liver involvement or impairment may be important clinically. Pharmacokinetic study was completed in 13 HCC patients. The paclitaxel area under the curve was significantly increased (P < 0.02), clearance decreased (P < 0.02) and treatment-related deaths increased (P = 0.03) in patients with hepatic impairment. In conclusion, paclitaxel in this dose and schedule has no significant anti-cancer effect in HCC patients. Paclitaxel should be used with caution in cancer patients with liver impairment.