The polyamines, putrescine (PUT), spermidine (SPD) and spermine (SPM), are a family of low molecular weight organic cations that are essential for cell growth, differentiation and neoplastic transformation. The marked compensatory increase in extracellular polyamine influx may be a reason for the unsatisfactory clinical chemotherapeutic effect of polyamine synthesis blockers like difluoromethylornithine (DFMO). In this study, a polymeric conjugate of SPM (poly-SPM) that blocks the import of polyamines into mammalian cells was used to test the potential therapeutic exploitation of the polyamine transport system in anticancer therapy. Our results indicate that a temperature-dependent polyamine transport system is expressed in two human cancer cell lines, MES-SA uterine sarcoma cells, K562 leukemic cells and their respective multiple drug resistance (MDR) positive counterparts, Dx5 and K562/R7 cells. The V(max) values for 14C-PUT and 14C-SPD uptake were significantly higher in MES-SA than in Dx5 cells, whereas the respective Km values were significantly lower. Addition of 20 microM poly-SPM reduced both the uptake of 14C-polyamines and the cellular polyamine contents in both cancer cell lines. In addition, the poly-SPM conjugate evoked a concentration-dependent cytotoxicity in MES-SA and K562 cells and their MDR-positive variants. Presence of aminoguanidine, an amine oxidase blocker, failed to alter the IC50 values generated with poly-SPM, which indicates that this polymer is not a substrate for amine oxidase. Moreover, coadministration of 25 microM SPD reversed the cytotoxic effect exerted by poly-SPM on both the MES-SA and Dx5 cells as reflected by an increase in their IC50 values. Relative to parental cells, the MDR-positive variants exhibited a lower 14C-polyamine uptake rate and were more resistant to the cytotoxic effect of poly-SPM. Pretreatment with 1 mM DFMO for 24 hr significantly increased polyamine transport, but failed to reduce intracellular SPM contents or exert a cytotoxic effect in both cancer cell lines. On other hand, the combination of DFMO and poly-SPM produced a greater depletion of polyamine content accompanied by a higher cytotoxicity than either agent alone. These results provide the first direct evidence that pharmacologic interruption of polyamine uptake may be an effective approach to cancer therapy. In addition, it appears that expression of MDR influences polyamine transport and renders cells more resistant to the cytotoxic effects of SPM polymer.