Capecitabine (N4-pentyloxycarbonyl-5'-deoxy-5-fluorocytidine) is a novel oral fluoropyrimidine carbamate, which is converted to 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) selectively in tumours through a cascade of three enzymes. The present study investigated tissue localisation of the three enzymes in humans, which was helpful for us to design the compound. Carboxylesterase was almost exclusively located in the liver and hepatoma, but not in other tumours and normal tissue adjacent to the tumours. Cytidine (Cyd) deaminase was located in high concentrations in the liver and various types of solid tumours. Finally, thymidine phosphorylase (dThdPase) was also more concentrated in various types of tumour tissues than in normal tissues. These unique tissue localisation patterns enabled us to design capecitabine. Oral capecitabine would pass intact through the intestinal tract, but would be converted first by carboxylesterase to 5'-deoxy-5-fluorocytidine (5'-dFCyd) in the liver, then by Cyd deaminase to 5'-deoxy-5-fluorouridine (5'-dFUrd) in the liver and tumour tissues and finally by dThdPase to 5-FU in tumours. In cultures of human cancer cell lines, the highest level of cytotoxicity was shown by 5-FU itself, followed by 5'-dFUrd. Capecitabine and 5'-dFCyd had weak cytotoxic activity only at high concentrations. The cytotoxicity of the intermediate metabolites 5'-dFCyd and 5'-dFCyd was suppressed by inhibitors of Cyd deaminase and dThdPase, respectively, indicating that these metabolites become effective only after their conversion to 5-FU. Capecitabine, which is finally converted to 5-FU by dThdPase in tumours, should be much safer and more effective than 5-FU, and this was indeed the case in the HCT116 human colon cancer and the MX-1 breast cancer xenograft models.