Paclitaxel (taxol) phosphate derivatives BMY46366, BMY-46489, BMS180661 and BMS180820 were used to determine the ability of alkaline phosphatase to convert these water-soluble potential prodrugs to tubulin-polymerizing metabolites (i.e., paclitaxel). Compounds were treated up to 180 min with an in vitro metabolic activation system composed of 10% bovine alkaline phosphatase in 0.2 M tris, pH 7.4, or in 0.2 M glycine, pH 8.8, plus 0.05 M MgCl2. Samples were tested (either by direct addition or after methylene chloride extraction/dimethyl-sulfoxide resuspension) in spectrophotometric tubulin polymerization assays utilizing bovine-derived microtubule protein. Pretreatment of 2'- and 7-phosphonoxyphenylpropionate prodrugs BMS180661 and BMS180820 with alkaline phosphatase for 30 to 120 min yielded relative initial slopes of about 20 to 100% at test concentrations equimolar to paclitaxel. High-performance liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry of BMS180661 treated with alkaline phosphatase confirmed the production of paclitaxel from the prodrug. In contrast, 2'- and 7-phosphate analogs BMY46366 and BMY46489 treated with alkaline phosphatase were not active in tubulin assays. None of the paclitaxel phosphate prodrugs polymerized tubulin in the absence of metabolic activation. The differences in tubulin polymerization with metabolic activation may be related both to accessibility of the phosphate group to the enzyme and to anionic charge effects. These results demonstrate that certain paclitaxel phosphate prodrugs can be metabolized by alkaline phosphatase to yield effective tubulin polymerization.