Tirilazad mesylate (Freedox), a potent inhibitor of membrane lipid peroxidation in vitro, is under clinical development for the treatment of subarachnoid hemorrhage. In humans, tirilazad is cleared almost exclusively via hepatic elimination. Characterization of three major microsomal metabolites of tirilazad by mass spectrometry indicated that hydroxylation had occurred in the pyrrolidine ring(s) and at the 6 beta-position of the steroid domain. A role for CYP3A4 in the formation of the three major metabolites (tirilazad hydroxylase activity) was established in human liver microsomal preparations: 1) Tirilazad hydroxylation was potently inhibited by troleandomycin and ketoconazole, specific inhibitors of CYP3A4. 2) The rates of tirilazad hydroxylation within a population of 14 human livers displayed a 9-fold interindividual variation and a significant correlation (r2 = .95) between tirilazad hydroxylation and testosterone 6 beta-hydroxylation. 3) Kinetic analysis of tirilazad hydroxylase activity in three human livers resulted in an apparent Km of 2.12, 1.68 and 1.66 microM, and Vmax = 0.85, 0.44 and 3.45 (nmol/mg protein/min) for HL14, HL17 and HL21, respectively. In addition, an apparent Km of 2.07 microM was established for tirilazad hydroxylation in a cDNA-expressed CYP3A4 microsomal system. Collectively, these data indicate that the metabolic clearance of tirilazad in humans is catalyzed primarily by CYP3A4 and provide an insight into factors (i.e., age, sex, drug-drug interactions) that modulate the metabolic clearance of tirilazad in vivo.