Dendrimers are highly branched macromolecules of low polydispersity that provide many exciting opportunities for design of novel drug-carriers, gene delivery systems and imaging agents. They hold promise in tissue targeting applications, controlled drug release and moreover, their interesting nanoscopic architecture might allow easier passage across biological barriers by transcytosis. However, from the vast array of structures currently emerging from synthetic chemistry it is essential to design molecules that have real potential for in vivo biological use. Here, polyamidoamine (PAMAM, Starburst), poly(propyleneimine) with either diaminobutane or diaminoethane as core, and poly(ethylene oxide) (PEO) grafted carbosilane (CSi-PEO) dendrimers were used to study systematically the effect of dendrimer generation and surface functionality on biological properties in vitro. Generally, dendrimers bearing -NH(2) termini displayed concentration- and in the case of PAMAM dendrimers generation-dependent haemolysis, and changes in red cell morphology were observed after 1 h even at low concentrations (10 microg/ml). At concentrations below 1 mg/ml CSi-PEO dendrimers and those dendrimers with carboxylate (COONa) terminal groups were neither haemolytic nor cytotoxic towards a panel of cell lines in vitro. In general, cationic dendrimers were cytotoxic (72 h incubation), displaying IC(50) values=50-300 microg/ml dependent on dendrimer-type, cell-type and generation. Preliminary studies with polyether dendrimers prepared by the convergent route showed that dendrimers with carboxylate and malonate surfaces were not haemolytic at 1 h, but after 24 h, unlike anionic PAMAM dendrimers they were lytic. Cationic 125I-labelled PAMAM dendrimers (gen 3 and 4) administered intravenously (i.v.) to Wistar rats ( approximately 10 microg/ml) were cleared rapidly from the circulation (<2% recovered dose in blood at 1 h). Anionic PAMAM dendrimers (gen 2.5, 3.5 and 5.5) showed longer circulation times ( approximately 20-40% recovered dose in blood at 1 h) with generation-dependent clearance rates; lower generations circulated longer. For both anionic and cationic species blood levels at 1 h correlated with the extent of liver capture observed (30-90% recovered dose at 1 h). 125I-Labelled PAMAM dendrimers injected intraperitoneally were transferred to the bloodstream within an hour and their subsequent biodistribution mirrored that seen following i.v. injection. Inherent toxicity would suggest it unlikely that higher generation cationic dendrimers will be suitable for parenteral administration, especially if they are to be used at a high dose. In addition it is clear that dendrimer structure must also be carefully tailored to avoid rapid hepatic uptake if targeting elsewhere (e.g. tumour targeting) is a primary objective.