A crude gum, a fixed oil and two purified components of Nigella sativa seed, thymoquinone (TQ) and dithymoquinone (DIM), were assayed in vitro for their cytotoxicity for several parental and multi-drug resistant (MDR) human tumor cell lines. Although as much as 1% w/v of the gum or oil was devoid of cytotoxicity, both TQ and DIM were cytotoxic for all of the tested cell lines (IC50's 78 to 393 microM). Both the parental cell lines and their corresponding MDR variants, over 10-fold more resistant to the standard antineoplastic agents doxorubicin (DOX) and etoposide (ETP), as compared to their respective parental controls, were equally sensitive to TQ and DIM. The inclusion of the competitive MDR modulator quinine in the assay reversed MDR Dx-5 cell resistance to DOX and ETP by 6- to 16-fold, but had no effect on the cytotoxicity of TQ or DIM. Quinine also increased MDR Dx-5 cell accumulation of the P-glycoprotein substrate 3H-taxol in a dose-dependent manner. However, neither TQ nor DIM significantly altered cellular accumulation of 3H-taxol. The inclusion of 0.5% v/v of the radical scavenger DMSO in the assay reduced the cytotoxicity of DOX by as much as 39%, but did not affect that of TQ or DIM. These studies suggest that TQ and DIM, which are cytotoxic for several types of human tumor cells, may not be MDR substrates, and that radical generation may not be critical to their cytotoxic activity.