To evaluate the possible intrathecal use of 5-fluoro-2'-deoxyuridine (FdUrd) for neoplastic meningitis, its antitumor activity and neurotoxicity in vivo were assessed. FdUrd at doses in the range 5-100 microg/animal was effective against meningeal carcinomatosis using Walker 256 carcinoma cells in rats and MM46 mammary cancer cells in mice and against meningeal gliomatosis using 203 glioma cells in mice. After four intrathecal injections, FdUrd at these doses also showed minimal neurotoxicity in the C57BL/6 mouse brain. To estimate the mechanism of FdUrd efficacy, thymidine phosphorylase (TPase) and thymidine kinase (TK), key enzymes in the metabolism of FdUrd, were measured in rat, mouse and normal human brain tissue, and in human brain tumor tissues and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) from patients with malignant brain tumors including meningeal carcinomatosis. TPase levels were lower in brain and malignant brain tumors than in other organs and their tumors. Moreover, the activity of TPase in the gray matter of human brain, which faces the cerebrospinal fluid across the cortical surface and into which malignant cells invade in meningeal carcinomatosis, was lower than that in the white matter. TK was undetectable, and TPase was detected (at very low concentrations) in only 4 of 56 patients with brain tumors or meningeal carcinomatosis. These findings indicate that brain tissue and CSF are favorable sites for FdUrd chemotherapy because the rate of conversion of FdUrd to 5-FU would be minimal. In conclusion, FdUrd is potentially useful for intrathecal treatment of neoplastic meningitis from primary brain tumors and systemic cancer.