A major limitation associated with systemic administration of cationic lipid:plasmid DNA (pDNA) complexes is the vector toxicity at the doses necessary to produce therapeutically relevant levels of transgene expression. Systematic evaluation of these toxicities has revealed that mice injected intravenously with cationic lipid:pDNA complexes develop significant, dose-dependent hematologic and serologic changes typified by profound leukopenia, thrombocytopenia, and elevated levels of serum transaminases indicative of hepatocellular necrosis. Vector administration also induced a potent inflammatory response characterized by complement activation and the induction of the cytokines IFN-gamma, TNF-alpha, IL-6, and IL-12. These toxicities were found to be transient, resolving with different kinetics to pretreatment levels by 14 days posttreatment. The toxic syndrome observed was independent of the cationic lipid:pDNA ratio, the cationic lipid species, and the level of transgene expression attained. Mechanistic studies determined that neither the complement cascade nor TNF-alpha were key mediators in the development of these characteristic toxicities. Administration of equivalent doses of the individual vector components revealed that cationic liposomes or pDNA alone did not generate the toxic responses observed with cationic lipid:pDNA complexes. Only moderate leukopenia was associated with administration of cationic liposomes or pDNA alone, while only mild thrombocytopenia was noted in pDNA-treated animals. These results establish a panel of objective parameters that can be used to quantify the acute toxicities resulting from systemic administration of cationic lipid:pDNA complexes, which in turn provides a means to compare the therapeutic indices of these vectors.