Given the poor outcomes of relapsed aggressive lymphomas and preclinical data suggesting that ≥2·5 μmol/l concentrations of vorinostat synergize with both etoposide and platinums, we hypothesized that pulse high-dose vorinostat could safely augment the anti-tumour activity of (R)ICE [(rituximab), ifosphamide, carboplatin, etoposide] chemotherapy. We conducted a phase I dose escalation study using a schedule with oral vorinostat ranging from 400 mg/d to 700 mg bid for 5 d in combination with the standard (R)ICE regimen (days 3, 4 and 5). Twenty-nine patients [median age 56 years, median 2 prior therapies, 14 chemoresistant (of 27 evaluable), 2 prior transplants] were enrolled and treated. The maximally tolerated vorinostat dose was defined as 500 mg twice daily × 5 d. Common dose limiting toxicities included infection (n = 2), hypokalaemia (n = 2), and transaminitis (n = 2). Grade 3 related gastrointestinal toxicity was seen in 9 patients. The median vorinostat concentration on day 3 was 4·5 μmol/l (range 4·2–6·0 μmol/l) and in vitro data confirmed the augmented antitumour and histone acetylation activity at these levels. Responses were observed in 19 of 27 evaluable patients (70%) including 8 complete response/unconfirmed complete response. High-dose vorinostat can be delivered safely with (R)ICE, achieves potentially synergistic drug levels, and warrants further study, although adequate gastrointestinal prophylaxis is warranted.