BACKGROUND: The growth inhibitory effect of tamoxifen is used for the treatment of breast cancer. Tamoxifen efficacy is mediated by its biotransformation, predominantly via the cytochrome P450 2D6 (CYP2D6) isoenzyme, to the active metabolite endoxifen. We investigated the relationship of CYP2D6 genotypes to the metabolism of dextromethorphan (DM), which is frequently used as a surrogate marker for the formation of endoxifen. METHODS: The CYP2D6 genotype was determined by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in previously untreated patients with hormone receptor-positive invasive breast cancer considered to receive antihormonal therapy. The DM/dextrorphan (DX) urinary excretion ratios were obtained in a subset of patients by high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC)-mediated urine analysis after intake of 25 mg DM. The relationships of genotype and corresponding phenotype were statistically analyzed for association. RESULTS: From 151 patients predicted based on their genotype data for the 'traditional' CYP2D6 phenotype classes poor, intermediate, extensive and ultrarapid, 83 patients were examined for their DM/DX urinary ratios. The genotype-based poor metabolizer status correlated with the DM/DX ratios, whereas the intermediate, extensive and ultrarapid genotypes could not be distinguished based on their phenotype. Citalopram intake did not significantly influence the phenotype. CONCLUSIONS: The DM metabolism can be reliably used to assess the CYP2D6 enzyme activity. The correlation with the genotype can be incomplete and the metabolic ratios do not seem to be compromised by citalopram. DM phenotyping may provide a standardized tool to better assess the CYP2D6 metabolic capacity.