Amrubicin, a 9-aminoanthracycline anti-cancer drug, and its C-13 hydroxyl metabolite amrubicinol, were examined for growth-inhibitory activity as well as cellular uptake and distribution in P388 murine leukemia cells and doxorubicin-resistant P388 cells. Also discussed are the differences in the mechanisms of action among amrubicin, amrubicinol and doxorubicin in terms of their cellular pharmacokinetic character. In P388 cells, amrubicinol was about 80 times as potent as amrubicin, and about 2 times more potent than doxorubicin in a 1-h drug exposure growth-inhibition test. A clear cross-resistance was observed to both amrubicin and amrubicinol in doxorubicin-resistant P388 cells, though the resistance index was lower for amrubicin. The intracellular concentration of amrubicinol was about 6 times and 2 times higher than those of amrubicin and doxorubicin, respectively. Compared to doxorubicin, amrubicin and amrubicinol were released rapidly after removal of the drugs from the medium. A clear correlation was found between the growth-inhibiting activity and the cellular level of amrubicin and amrubicinol in P388 cells. About 10 to 20% of amrubicin or amrubicinol taken up by the cells was detected in the cell nuclear fraction, whereas 70 to 80% of doxorubicin was localized in this fraction. These results suggest that amrubicin and amrubicinol exert cytotoxic activity via a different mechanism from that of doxorubicin.