BACKGROUND Oral administration of irinotecan (CPT-11) should allow sustained exposure to the drug without the inconvenience of intravenous delivery and with fewer side-effects. PATIENTS AND METHODS The present phase I trial of CPT-11, administered orally as a powder-filled capsule for 5 consecutive days every 3 weeks at doses ranging from 30 to 90 mg/m(2)/day, was conducted in 47 patients for whom a satisfactory standard treatment option was no longer available (24 males/23 females; median age 51 years, range 26-85). Tumour types included melanoma (11), colorectal (4), urinary tract (3), lung/pleura (4), thyroid (3), liver (3), gallbladder (2), cervix/uterus (3), breast (2), pancreas (2), carcinoma and other cancer types (10). RESULTS A total of 171 cycles were administered (median 3, range 1-11). Dose limiting toxicities (DLTs) occurred during the first cycle in five of 31 patients in the dose-escalation part of the study: one patient at the 50 mg/m(2)/day dose level (diarrhoea grade 4); one patient at the 80 mg/m(2)/day dose level (prolonged neutropenia grade 4 and diarrhoea grade 3); and three patients at the 90 mg/m(2)/day dose level (diarrhoea, vomiting and neutropenia). The 80 mg/m(2)/day dose level was expanded, as a feasibility study, to include 16 additional patients, five of whom had received extensive prior pelvic irradiation. A further three patients in this cohort experienced DLTs, two of whom had received extensive prior pelvic irradiation. One patient died on study day 15 during the first cycle of oral CPT-11 following grade 3 diarrhoea, febrile neutropenia and a necrotic enterocolitis. Overall the grade 3/4 toxicities in 47 patients were asthenia (19%), anorexia (17%), neutropenia (14.9 %), diarrhoea (13%), nausea (12.7%), vomiting (8.5%) and thrombocytopenia (8.5%). Partial responses were observed in two melanoma patients and disease stabilisation was noted in 17 (36.1%) patients. Pharmacokinetic parameters were recorded for 46 patients. CONCLUSIONS At the maximum tolerated dose, defined as 80 mg/m(2)/day for 5 days every 3 weeks, oral CPT-11 was shown to be well tolerated and safe with few of the haematological toxicities associated with the intravenous formulation.