The poor blood supply to solid tumours introduces many factors that affect the outcome of chemotherapy, one of which is the problem of drug delivery to poorly vascularized regions of tumours. Whereas poor drug penetration has been recognized as a contributing factor to the poor response of many solid tumours, the question of drug penetration through multicell layers has not been thoroughly addressed, largely because of restrictions imposed upon these studies by the requirement for either radiolabelled or naturally fluorescent compounds. The aim of this study is to describe modifications made to a recently published assay that broadens the scope for assessing drug penetration during the early stages of drug development and to characterize the ability of various drugs to penetrate multicell layers. DLD-1 human colon carcinoma cells were cultured on Transwell-COL plastic inserts placed into 24-well culture plates so that a top and bottom chamber were established, the two chambers being separated by a microporous membrane. Drugs were added to the top chamber at doses equivalent to peak plasma concentrations in vivo and the rate of appearance of drugs in the bottom chamber determined by high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC). Both 3-amino-1,2,4-benzotriazine 1,4-dioxide (tirapazamine) and 7-[4'-(2-nitroimidazol-1-yl)-butyl]-theophylline (NITP) rapidly penetrated DLD-1 multicell layers (50.9 +/- 12.1 microm thick) with t(1/2) values of 1.36 and 2.38 h respectively, whereas the rate of penetration of 5-aziridino-3-hydroxymethyl-1-methyl-2-[1H-indole-4,7-dione] prop-beta-en-alpha-ol (EO9) and doxorubicin through multicell layers was significantly slower (t(1/2) = 4.62 and 13.1 h respectively). Inclusion of dicoumarol increases the rate of EO9 penetration, whereas reducing the oxygen tension to 5% causes a reduction in tirapazamine penetration through multicell layers, suggesting that the extent of drug metabolism is one factor that determines the rate at which drugs penetrate multicell layers. The fact that EO9 does not readily penetrate a multicell layer, in conjunction with its rapid elimination in vivo (t(1/2) < 10 min), suggests that EO9 is unlikely to penetrate more than a few microm from a blood vessel within its pharmacokinetic lifespan. These results suggest that the failure of EO9 in the clinic is due to a combination of poor drug penetration and rapid elimination in vivo.