Bis(diphenylphosphine)ethane (DPPE) and its bis[chlorogold(I)] [DPPE(Au2Cl2)], and bis[trichlorogold(III)] [DPPE(Au2Cl6)], complexes have in vivo antitumor activity. To determine if interaction with metals in situ can play a role in the antitumor activity of DPPE, we have studied the effects of DPPE, DPPE(Au2Cl2), DPPE(Au2Cl6) and mixtures of DPPE with metal salts on in vitro and in vivo biological systems. The in vitro cytotoxic potencies of the two DPPE-gold complexes were approximately 10-fold greater than that of DPPE. In addition, the cytotoxic potency of DPPE was increased when incubated with cells in the presence of Au(III) and Cu(II) salts, whereas Mg(II), Zn(II), Mn(II), Fe(II), Co(II), and Cd(II) had no effect. The effects of DPPE, DPPE(Au2Cl2) and mixtures of DPPE and metal salts on the activity of a model enzyme system, DNA polymerase α were measured. While DPPE did not inhibit the activity of DNA polymerase α, the DPPE(Au2Cl2) complex and mixtures of DPPE and Cu(II) salts inhibited the activity of the enzyme. Consistent with the effects observed in vitro, coadministration of Cu(II) or Au(III) increased the in vivo potency of DPPE in mice bearing i.p. P388 leukemia. Fifteen other DPPE analogues were evaluated for in vivo antitumor activity and for the effect of Cu(II) on their in vitro cytotoxic potency; there was a relationship between the ability of Cu(II) to potentiate the cytotoxic activities of DPPE analogues and their having in vivo antitumor activity.