The goal of this study was to determine the efficacy of local IL-1Ra gene therapy by intra-articular plasmid injections on structural changes in the meniscectomy rabbit model of osteoarthritis. A partial meniscectomy of the right knee was performed on the rabbits through a medial parapatellar incision. The rabbits were then divided into four experimental groups. Group 1 received no treatment. Group 2 received three consecutive intra-articular injections at 24-hour intervals of 0.9% saline containing a lipid, gammaAP-DLRIE/DOPE, and a DNA plasmid, VR1012. Group 3 received three consecutive injections of saline containing 1000 microg of canine IL-1Ra plasmid and lipid. The injections were given starting 4 weeks post-surgery. Rabbits from Group 1 were killed 4 weeks post-surgery, and all other rabbits 8 weeks post-surgery. The severity of macroscopic and microscopic changes on cartilage on the medial and femoral condyles and tibial plateaus and synovium were graded separately. Specimens were also processed for immunohistochemical staining using a rabbit polyclonal antibody against canine IL-1Ra. The level of canine IL-1Ra in synovial fluid was determined using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. The presence of the DNA plasmid in the synovium was tested by polymerase chain reaction. A significant reduction in the width of osteophytes and size of macroscopic lesions (P < 0.04) was observed, and was dependent on the amount of IL-1Ra plasmid injected. A significant reduction was also noted in the severity of histologic cartilage lesions (P < 0.01) in the group that received the highest dosage (1000 microg) of IL-1Ra plasmid. IL-1Ra was detected in synovial fluid by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay and by immunohistochemical staining in the synovium and cartilage of rabbits that received injections containing the IL-1Ra plasmid. Polymerase chain reaction analysis of synovial DNA revealed the presence of the cloned cDNA dog IL-1Ra up to 4 weeks after the first intra-articular injection. This study demonstrates that direct in vivo transfer of the IL-1Ra gene into osteoarthritis knee cells using intra-articular injections of a plasmid vector and lipids can significantly reduce the progression of experimental osteoarthritis. This avenue may therefore represent a promising future treatment for osteoarthritis.