Increasing evidence indicates that cationic liposomes are capable of safely transferring foreign genes to pulmonary epithelium in vitro and in vivo. To transfer reporter genes and the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) to mammalian respiratory epithelium we used two cationic lipid formulations: N-[1-(2,3-dioleoyloxy)propyl] N,N,N-triethylammonium chloride (DOTMA), and 1,2-dimyristyloxy-propyl-3-dimethylhydroxyethylammonium bromide (DMRIE) at a 1:1 molar ratio with dioleoyl phosphatidylethanolamine (DOPE). Lipid-DNA conjugates containing either CFTR or LacZ were instilled directly into the airways of Sprague-Dawley rats. Rats treated with LacZ cDNA in vivo demonstrated expression in 30-50% of the large and medium-sized airways, with some airways showing high efficiency gene transfer and expression (in the most proximal airways, 70-80% of surface epithelial cells were positive for expression of a nuclear targeted LacZ). While control and LacZ treated tracheas mounted in Ussing chambers showed minimal stimulation of transepithelial chloride (Cl-)-currents by cAMP (suggesting low levels of endogenous rat CFTR activity), tracheas taken from animals receiving CFTR exhibited significant forskolin-stimulated currents at 72 h after gene transfer. Human CFTR gene expression was also detected by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analysis of reverse transcribed lung RNA. These results, together with previous studies using lipid-mediated gene transfer in mice, help confirm the potential for cationic lipid-mediated gene transfer in the gene therapy of cystic fibrosis in humans.