Paclitaxel is pharmaceutically formulated in a mixture of Cremophor EL and ethanol (1:1, v/v). The unbound fraction of the anticancer drug paclitaxel in plasma is dependent on both plasma protein binding and entrapment in Cremophor EL micelles. We have developed a simple and reproducible method for the quantification of the unbound paclitaxel fraction in human plasma. Human plasma was spiked with [3H]paclitaxel and [14C]glucose (unbound reference) and incubated at 37 degrees C for 30 min. Plasma ultrafiltrate was prepared by a micropartition system (MPS-1) and collected in a sample cup containing 100 microl of plasma to prevent the loss of paclitaxel due to adsorption. The radionuclides were separated after combustion of the biological samples using a sample oxidizer and the radioactivity was determined by liquid scintillation counting. The unbound fraction of paclitaxel was calculated by dividing the ratios of 3H and 14C in plasma ultrafiltrate and in plasma. The method was thoroughly validated using human plasma spiked with pharmacologically relevant concentrations of paclitaxel (10-1000 ng/ml) and Cremophor EL (0.25-2.0%). The method was precise, with a within-day precision ranging from 3.9 to 11.0% and a between-day precision ranging from 5.8 to 13.1%. In patient plasma with low serum albumin values containing 1% of Cremophor EL, the unbound fraction appeared to be significantly higher than that in plasma with normal albumin values. The determination of the unbound fraction of paclitaxel proved to be stable during a 10-week storage at -20 degrees C. Furthermore, the assay was applicable in patient samples. This assay can be used to determine the unbound fraction of paclitaxel in plasma. Moreover, its design should allow the determination of the unbound concentrations of other hydrophobic drugs.