The camptothecin derivative topotecan has been postulated to mediate its antitumor effect through a drug-induced increase in covalent topoisomerase I-DNA complexes. If this hypothesis is correct, then schedules of exposure to topotecan that maximize the number of topoisomerase I-DNA complexes should produce the greatest cytotoxicity. We identified schedules of exposure to topotecan that maximize levels of complexes in vitro and used these schedules to postulate effective schedules of exposure in vivo in a mouse xenograft model. Unexpectedly, K+-SDS precipitation assays quantitating covalent topoisomerase I-DNA complexes showed that Daoy medulloblastoma and Rh30 rhabdomyosarcoma cells became refractory to drug-induced increases in complexes after an 8-h exposure to 2.5 microM topotecan. In contrast, assays using 10-50 nM topotecan showed that the cells did not become refractory, and more importantly, intermittent exposure to drug increased the level of complexes approximately 2-fold above the maximum level observed after a single drug exposure. The data indicate that continuous exposure to topotecan does not maximize topoisomerase I-DNA complexes and suggest that effective intermittent schedules of exposure to topotecan might be identified. Growth inhibition assays confirmed this hypothesis and showed that growth inhibition by topotecan was extremely schedule dependent in Rh30 cells but not in Daoy cells. Xenograft studies showed that schedules modeled after the in vitro experiments produced complete tumor regressions in mice. Topotecan given daily (0.6-2.2 mg/kg) or every other day (1-3.3 mg/kg) for 2 weeks, repeated every 21 days for three cycles, produced complete regressions of Daoy xenografts; however, daily exposure was required to achieve complete regressions of Rh30 xenografts. We conclude that effective intermittent schedules of exposure to topotecan, based on biochemical parameters, can be identified. The clinical utility of each schedule will depend on the relative antitumor effect compared to the toxic effect on the bone marrow, which usually limits administration of topotecan to patients.