Doxorubicin containing combination chemotherapy regimens are widely used for treatment of breast and other cancers. However, these regimens are associated with significant toxicities including myocardial dysfunction and alopecia. Analogues of doxorubicin are being developed to reduce these side effects. We conducted a Phase II trial of an anthracycline analogue, pirarubicin, administered in combination with 5-fluorouracil and cyclophosphamide every 3 weeks, as front-line chemotherapy in women with metastatic breast cancer. Patients who had received prior anthracycline therapy were excluded. The chemotherapy doses were as follows: 5-fluorouracil (500 mg/m2 on days 1 and 8), pirarubicin (50 mg/m2 on day 1), and cyclophosphamide (500 mg/m2 on day 1). Among 40 evaluable patients treated on this protocol, a major response (partial or complete remission) was observed in 26 patients (response rate, 62%; 95% confidence interval, 46-77). The median response duration was 8 months, and median survival was 16 months. Grade III/IV myelosuppression occurred in 81% of the courses. The median cumulative pirarubicin dose was 410 (range, 90-870) mg/m2. A significant decrease in left ventricular ejection fraction occurred in 12 patients (at a median cumulative pirarubicin dose of 460 mg/m2) and led to congestive heart failure in 4 of these patients (cumulative pirarubicin doses of 500, 520, 590, and 730 mg/m2, respectively). Eleven patients underwent endomyocardial biopsy, either because they experienced a drop in left ventricular ejection fraction or because they had received a cumulative pirarubicin dose of 600 mg/m2 and were still responding to the treatment. Of these, only one biopsy was found to be more than grade 1.0 (in an individual who had received a cumulative dose of 705 mg/m2). Severe alopecia occurred in two-thirds of the patients. Pharmacokinetic studies revealed a triphasic elimination of pirarubicin with alpha, beta and gamma half-lives of 0.12, 1.44, and 33.9 h, respectively. Total clearance of drug was 4.2 liters.1 h/kg while the cumulative 24-h urinary excretion was less than 10% of the administered dose. The activity of the combination appears to be similar to doxorubicin-containing regimens, while the incidence of alopecia appears to be lower than the historical experience with doxorubicin. However, cardiotoxicity remains a significant problem.