OBJECTIVE: To compare the relative safety and efficacy of Infasurf (calf lung surfactant extract; ONY, Inc, Amherst, NY, IND #27169) versus Survanta (Beractant, Ross Laboratories, Columbus, OH) in reducing the acute severity of respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) when given at birth and to infants with established RDS. DESIGN: A prospective, randomized, double-blind, multicenter clinical trial. SETTING: Thirteen neonatal intensive care units participated in the treatment arm: seven of these concurrently participated in the prevention arm. PATIENTS: The treatment arm enrolled infants of =2000 g birth weight with established RDS, and the prevention arm enrolled infants of =29 weeks' gestation with birth weights <1250 g. INTERVENTION: Infants were randomly assigned to receive Infasurf (n = 303, treatment arm; n = 180, prevention arm) or Survanta (n = 305, treatment arm; n = 194, prevention arm) in accordance with the Survanta package insert instructions. OUTCOME MEASURES: We projected a 25% reduction between groups in the need for a third dose of surfactant for infants with established RDS, and a 25% reduction in the need for a second dose of surfactant for infants who received prophylactic surfactant. Secondary outcomes included the severity of RDS measured by inspired oxygen concentrations and mean airway pressure, air leaks, complications associated with surfactant administration, and survival to 36 weeks' postmenstrual age without the need for oxygen supplementation. RESULTS: In the treatment arm, there was no difference between groups in the number of infants requiring more than two doses of surfactant. The interval between doses was significantly longer for Infasurf, suggesting an increased duration of treatment effect. The inspired oxygen concentration and mean airway pressure were lower in the Infasurf infants during the first 48 hours in the treatment arm. In the prevention arm, there were no differences with respect to the number of surfactant doses. The dosing intervals were longer for Infasurf infants after the second dose. No difference in inspired oxygen or mean airway pressure was noted during the first 72 hours. There were no significant differences in the incidence of air leaks, complications associated with dosing, complications of prematurity, mortality, or survival without chronic lung disease in the prevention or treatment arm. CONCLUSIONS: Infants treated with Infasurf have a modest benefit in the acute phase of RDS. Infasurf seems to produce a longer duration of effect than Survanta.