A series of bidentate hydroxypyridinone iron chelators that have therapeutic potential as oral iron chelators, have been studied systematically to determine which properties are the most critical for the mobilization of hepatocyte iron. The relationship between lipid solubility of the free and complexed forms of each chelator and hepatocyte iron release has been investigated as well as the contribution of the binding constant for iron (III). Hydroxypyridin-4- ones that were approximately equally soluble in lipid and aqueous phases were the most active compounds, the partition coefficient of the free chelator appearing to be more critical in determining iron release than that of the iron-complexed form. Highly hydrophilic chelators did not mobilize intracellular iron pools, whereas highly lipophilic compounds were toxic to hepatocytes. The contribution of the binding constant for iron (III) to cellular iron release was assessed by comparing hydroxypyridin-4-ones (log beta 3 = 36) and hydroxypyridin-2- ones (log beta 3 = 32), which possess similar partition coefficients. The results show that the binding for iron (III) is particularly important at low concentrations of chelator (less than 100 mumol/L) and that at higher concentrations (greater than 500 mumol/L) iron mobilization is limited by the available chelatable pool. Measurement of iron release with other chelators confirms the importance of both the lipid solubilities and iron (III)-binding constants to iron mobilization. The most active hydroxypyridin-4-ones released more hepatocyte iron than did deferoxamine when compared at equimolar concentrations. The results suggest that the ability of an iron chelator to enter the cell is crucial for effective iron mobilization and that once within the cell the binding constant of the chelator for iron (III) becomes a dominant factor.