The protective effect on iron-supplemented hepatocyte cultures of three iron chelators, pyoverdin Pa and hydroxypyrid-4-one derivatives CP20 and CP22, was compared to that of the widely known desferrioxamine B (Desferal:DFO), on the basis of two criteria: (a) their effectiveness in inhibiting free malondialdehyde (MDA) production as an index of iron-induced lipid peroxidation; and (b) their ability to reduce intracellular enzyme leakage. In view of these two markers of iron toxicity, the protective effect of these chelators was classified as follows: DFO > CP20 > or = CP22 > Pa. The mechanism of cellular protection was elucidated by investigating both the iron-chelating activity and the free radical scavenging property of these agents. As concerns the iron chelation, DFO and Pa exerted the same rank order as for cytoprotection (DFO > Pa). The free radical scavenging property toward hydroxyl radical .OH and peroxyl radical ROO. was investigated in a cell-free experimental model. The two siderophores, DFO and Pa, appeared to have a lower antiradical activity toward .OH than hydroxypyrid-4-one CP22. This .OH scavenging activity was classified as follows: CP22 >> Pa > DFO. Moreover, the chelators exhibited for the quenching of ROO. the same order of effectiveness as that observed for cellular protection: DFO > CP20 > or = CP22 > Pa. These data indicate that, in addition to the iron-chelating activity which represents the most important property for determining the protection capacity of these iron chelators, their free radical scavenging ability also must be taken into account. This direct demonstration of a strong association between the free radical scavenging activity and the protective effect of iron chelators further increases the prospects for the development and clinical applications of new oral chelating drugs.