It is known that 7-ethyl-10-[4-(1-piperidino)-1-piperidino]carbonyloxycamptothecin (CPT-11), a semisynthesized derivative of camptothecin (CPT), has a potent antitumor activity in vivo, but 7-ethyl-10-hydroxycamptothecin (SN-38), a metabolite of CPT-11, shows much stronger cytotoxicity in vitro than CPT-11. In this study, we demonstrated that the relaxation of SV40 DNA plasmids by type I DNA topoisomerase prepared from P388 murine leukemia cells was inhibited by 50% by SN-38 at approximately 1 µm, although CPT-11 at 1 mm slightly inhibited the relaxation. SN-38 and CPT showed strong, time-dependent inhibitory activity against DNA synthesis of P388 cells. However, CPT-11 weakly inhibited DNA synthesis independently of time with coincident inhibition of the total thymidine uptake by the cells. By alkaline and neutral elution assays, it was demonstrated that SN-38 caused much more frequent DNA single-strand breaks in P388 cells than did CPT-11. The same content of SN-38 and a similar frequency of single-strand breaks were detected in the cells treated with SN-38 at 0.1 µm or with CPT-11 at 100 µm. Therefore, single-strand breaks by CPT-11 seem to be due to SN-38 produced from CPT-11 in cells. These results indicate that CPT-11 itself possesses a marginal antiproliferative effect but that SN-38 plays an essential role in the mechanism of action of CPT-11.