In preclinical studies, a doxorubicin liposome formulation containing polyethylene-glycol (Doxil) shows a long circulation time in plasma, enhanced accumulation in murine tumors, and a superior therapeutic activity over free (unencapsulated) doxorubicin (DOX). The purpose of this study was to characterize the pharmacokinetics of Doxil in cancer patients in comparison with free DOX and examine its accumulation in malignant effusions. The pharmacokinetics of doxorubicin and/or liposome-associated doxorubicin were analyzed in seven patients after injections of equivalent doses of free DOX and Doxil and in an additional group of nine patients after injection of Doxil only. Two dose levels were examined, 25 and 50 mg/m2. When possible, drug levels were also measured in malignant effusions. The plasma elimination of Doxil followed a biexponential curve with half-lives of 2 and 45 h (median values), most of the dose being cleared from plasma under the longer half-life. Nearly 100% of the drug detected in plasma after Doxil injection was in liposome-encapsulated form. A slow plasma clearance (0.1 liter/h for Doxil versus 45 liters/h for free DOX) and a small volume of distribution (4 liters for Doxil versus 254 liters for free DOX) are characteristic of Doxil. Doxorubicin metabolites were detected in the urine of Doxil-treated patients with a pattern similar to that reported for free DOX, although the overall urinary excretion of drug and metabolites was significantly reduced. Doxil treatment resulted in a 4- to 16-fold enhancement of drug levels in malignant effusions, peaking between 3 to 7 days after injection. Stomatitis related to Doxil occurred in 5 of 15 evaluable patients and appears to be the most significant side effect in heavily pretreated patients. The results of this study are consistent with preclinical findings indicating that the pharmacokinetics of doxorubicin are drastically altered using Doxil and follow a pattern dictated by the liposome carrier. The enhanced drug accumulation in malignant effusions is apparently related to liposome longevity in circulation. Further clinical investigation is needed to establish the relevance of these findings with regard to the ability of liposomes to modify the delivery of doxorubicin to solid tumors and its pattern of antitumor activity.