The intracellular half-life for retention of the active triphosphate metabolite 1-beta-D-arabinofuranosylcytosine 5'-triphosphate (araCTP) of 1-beta-D-arabinofuranosylcytosine was measured in vitro in blast cells from patients with acute myeloblastic leukemia, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma. araCTP accumulation from 1 microM 1-beta-D-arabinofuranosylcytosine in leukemic blast cells was closely correlated with the nucleoside transport capacity as measured by equilibrium binding of [3H]nitrobenzylthioinosine. The half-life of araCTP retention was related to araCTP accumulation only when the level of araCTP was expressed as a percentage of total intracellular 1-beta-D-arabinofuranosylcytosine metabolites. Accumulation of 1-beta-D-arabinofuranosyluracil 5'-monophosphate was inversely related to the half-life of araCTP retention and directly related to dCMP deaminase activity in cell free extracts. No conversion of 1-beta-D-arabinofuranosyluracil to 1-beta-D-arabinofuranosyluracil 5'-monophosphate was detectable in intact cells. The end product of araCTP degradation was 1-beta-D-arabinofuranosyluracil and it is proposed that conversion of 1-beta-D-arabinofuranosylcytosine 5'-monophosphate to 1-beta-D-arabinofuranosyluracil 5'-monophosphate is a step in the degradative pathway of araCTP. However, it is the cells' nucleoside transport capacity which primarily determines the level of intracellular araCTP accumulation.