As an approach to gene therapy for the respiratory manifestations of cystic fibrosis (CF), in vivo plasmid-mediated direct transfer of the normal CF transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene to the airway epithelium was investigated in mice. To evaluate the feasibility of this strategy, pRSVL, a plasmid composed of a firefly luciferase gene driven by the Rous sarcoma virus long terminal repeat (RSV-LTR), along with cationic liposomes was instilled into the trachea of C57BI/6NCR mice. With administration of 200-400 micrograms plasmid DNA, luciferase expression could be detected in the mouse lung homogenates for at least 4 wk. With this background, a CFTR expression plasmid vector (pRSVCFTR) constructed by replacing the luciferase cDNA from pRSVL with the normal human CFTR cDNA was evaluated in vivo in mice. Intratracheal instillation of pRSVCFTR with cationic liposomes followed by analysis of mouse lung RNA by polymerase chain reaction amplification (after conversion of mRNA to cDNA) using a RSV-LTR specific sense primer and a human CFTR-specific antisense primer demonstrated human CFTR mRNA transcripts from one day to 4 wk after instillation. Further, in vivo evaluation of beta-galactosidase activity after intratracheal administration of an E. coli lacZ gene expression plasmid vector directed by the cytomegalovirus promoter (pCMV beta) demonstrated that the airway epithelium was the major target of transfer and expression of the exogenous gene. These observations demonstrate successful plasmid-mediated gene transfer to the airway epithelium in vivo. This strategy may be feasible as a form of gene therapy to prevent the pulmonary manifestations of CF.