Abstract The potent activity exhibited by the antitumoral camptothecin (CPT) and its analog irinotecan (CPT-11) is known to be related to a close contact between the drug and the nucleic acid base guanine. This specificity of interaction between these two chromophores was examined by following changes in the photophysical properties of the drug using steady-state as well as time-resolved absorption and fluorescence methods. The observed effects on absorption, fluorescence emission and singlet excited state lifetimes give evidence for the occurrence of a stacking complex formation restricted to the quinoline part of CPT or CPT-11 and the guanine base but also with the adenine base. The triplet excited state properties of the drugs have been also characterized in absence and in presence of guanosine monophosphate and reveal the occurrence of an electron transfer from the guanine base to the drug. Support for this conclusion was obtained from the studies of a set of biological targets of various oxido-reduction potentials, adenosine monophosphate, cytidine, cytosine, tryptophan, tyrosine and phenylalanine. This finding gives an interpretation of the CPT-induced guanine photolesions previously reported in the literature. These data taken together are discussed in connection with the drug activity. The stacking complex CPT/guanine is necessary but not sufficient to explain the role of the chirality and of the lactone structure in the function of the drug. A stereospecific interaction with the enzyme topoisomerase I seems necessary to stabilize the stacking complex. The first experiments using time-resolved fluorescence by two-photon excitation confirms that CPT does not bind to the isolated enzyme.