The therapeutic effect of iron (Fe) chelators on the potentially toxic plasma pool of nontransferrin-bound iron (NTBI), often present in Fe overload diseases and in some cancer patients during chemotherapy, is of considerable interest. In the present investigation, several multidentate pyridinones were synthesized and compared with their bidentate analogue, deferiprone (DFP; L1, orally active) and desferrioxamine (DFO; hexadentate; orally inactive) for their effect on the metabolism of NTBI in the rat hepatocyte and a hepatoma cell line (McArdle 7777, Q7). Hepatoma cells took up much less NTBI than the hepatocytes (< 10%). All the chelators inhibited NTBI uptake (80-98%) much more than they increased mobilization of Fe from cells prelabelled with NTBI (5-20%). The hexadentate pyridinone, N,N,N-tris(3-hydroxy-1-methyl-2(1H )-pyridinone-4-carboxaminoethyl)amine showed comparable activity to DFO and DFP. There was no apparent correlation between Fe status, Fe uptake and chelator activity in hepatocytes, suggesting that NTBI transport is not regulated by cellular Fe levels. The intracellular distribution of iron taken up as NTBI changed in the presence of chelators suggesting that the chelators may act intracellularly as well as at the cell membrane. In conclusion (a) rat hepatocytes have a much greater capacity to take up NTBI than the rat hepatoma cell line (Q7), (b) all chelators bind NTBI much more effectively during the uptake phase than in the mobilization of Fe which has been stored from NTBI and (c) while DFP is the most active chelator, other multidentate pyridinones have potential in the treatment of Fe overload, particularly at lower, more readily clinically available concentrations, and during cancer chemotherapy, by removing plasma NTBI.