7-Ethyl-10-[4-(1-piperidino)-1-piperidino]carbonyloxycamptothecin (irinotecan, CPT-11) is a camptothecin prodrug that is metabolized by carboxylesterases (CE) to the active metabolite 7-ethyl-10-hydroxycamptothecin (SN-38), a topoisomerase I inhibitor. CPT-11 has shown encouraging antitumor activity against a broad spectrum of tumor types in early clinical trials, but hematopoietic and gastrointestinal toxicity limit its administration. To increase the therapeutic index of CPT-11 and to develop other prodrug analogues for enzyme/prodrug gene therapy applications, our laboratories propose to develop camptothecin prodrugs that will be activated by specific CEs. Specific analogues might then be predicted to be activated, for example, predominantly by human liver CE(hCE1), by human intestinal CE (hiCE), or in gene therapy approaches using a rabbit liver CE (rCE). This study describes a molecular modeling approach to relate the structure of rCE-activated camptothecin prodrugs with their biological activation. Comparative molecular field analysis, comparative molecular similarity index analysis, and docking studies were used to predict the biological activity of a 4-benzylpiperazine derivative of CPT-11 [7-ethyl-10-[4-(1-benzyl)-1-piperazino] carbonyloxycamptothecin (BP-CPT)] in U373MG glioma cell lines transfected with plasmids encoding rCE or hiCE. BP-CPT has been reported to be activated more efficiently than CPT-11 by a rat serum esterase activity; however, three-dimensional quantitative structure-activity relationship studies predicted that rCE would activate BPCPT less efficiently than CPT-11. This was confirmed by both growth inhibition experiments and kinetic studies. The method is being used to design camptothecin prodrugs predicted to be activated by specific CEs. © 2003 American Association for Cancer Research.