Colorectal cancer (CRC) is one of the most common and lethal human cancers, and the clinical outcomes remain unsatisfactory because of the lack of effective and safe therapeutic regimens. Here, we describe a practical and potent delivery approach for the human topoisomerase I inhibitor 7-ethyl-10-hydroxycamptothecin (SN38) against CRC. Injectable SN38-loaded nanoparticles are obtained through covalent ligation of the SN38 agent with oligo-ε-caprolactone (oligoCL) to form oligoCL-SN38 conjugates via an esterase-activatable linkage followed by encapsulation of these prodrugs in exogenous polymer matrices. Prodrug nanoparticles with adaptive features are sufficiently stable during blood circulation, while active drugs can be released in response to intracellular esterase. The administration of nanoparticle drugs results in durable tumor recession, and the efficacy is superior to that of the current standard-of-care therapy, CPT-11, in multiple mouse models of CRC, one of which is a chemically induced orthotopic CRC. Elucidation of the mechanism underlying these differing efficacies shows that nanoparticle delivery produces a substantial increase in the intratumoral concentration of the therapeutic agent relative to CPT-11, which contributes to improved antitumor efficacy. Finally, these nanoparticle drugs are potentially less toxic in animals than CPT-11, as evidenced by the low incidence of bloody diarrhea and attenuated colonic damage. Overall, these results demonstrate that precisely engineered therapeutic nanoparticles are capable of enhancing efficacy, addressing the risk of tumor recurrence, and increasing drug tolerance, thus deserving further investigation.