The purpose of this study was to define, in a phase I study in leukemia, the maximally tolerated dose (MTD), major toxicities, and possible antitumor activity of Topotecan, a new topoisomerase I (topo I) inhibitor. Topotecan was delivered by a 5-day continuous infusion every 3 to 4 weeks to patients with refractory or relapsed acute leukemia, at doses ranging from 3.5 mg/m2 to 18 mg/m2 per course. Twenty-seven patients were treated, including 17 patients with acute myelogenous or undifferentiated leukemia, 7 with acute lymphocytic leukemia, and 3 with chronic myelogenous leukemia in blastic phase. Severe mucositis was the dose-limiting toxicity occurring in two of five patients treated with Topotecan 11.8 mg/m2 per course; a third patient had prolonged myelosuppression. At the MTD of 10 mg/m2 per course, 1 of 12 patients had severe mucositis and 5 had mild-to- moderate mucositis. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and prolonged myelosuppression were uncommon. Three patients (11%) achieved a complete response, two (7%) had a partial response, and one (4%) had a hematologic improvement. The overall complete plus partial response rate was 19%, and 24% in acute myelogenous or undifferentiated leukemia. A novel in vitro assay that quantifies Topotecan-stabilized topo I-DNA complexes in patient samples was used, which demonstrated heterogeneity in the ability of Topotecan to interact with topo I, the intracellular target of Topotecan. This phase I study defined the MTD of Topotecan to be 10 mg/m2 by continuous infusion over 5 days every 3 to 4 weeks in patients with refractory or relapsed acute leukemia. Severe mucositis was the dose-limiting toxicity. Future studies will define the precise activity of Topotecan in different leukemia subsets, its efficacy in combination with other antileukemic drugs, and correlations between Topotecan-induced topo I-DNA complex formation and individual patient response to Topotecan.