A folate-targeted, cationic lipid based transfection complex was developed and found to specifically transfect folate receptor-expressing cells and tumors. These liposomal vectors were comprised of protamine-condensed plasmid DNA, a mixture of cationic and neutral lipids, and a folic acid-cysteine-polyethyleneglycol-phosphatidylethanolamine (FA-Cys-PEG-PE) conjugate. Pre-optimization studies revealed that inclusion of low amounts (0.01 to 0.03%) of FA-Cys-PEG-PE yielded the highest binding activity of dioleoylphosphatidylcholine/cholesterol liposomes to folate receptor-bearing cells. In contrast, higher amounts (>0.5%) of FA-Cys-PEG-PE progressively decreased cellular binding of the liposomes. In vitro studies with cationic lipid/dioleoylphosphatidylethanolamine formulations indicated that as little as 0.01 to 0.3% of FA-Cys-PEG-PE was needed to produce optimal targeted expression of plasmid DNA. Similarly, using a disseminated intraperitoneal L1210A tumor model, maximum in vivo transfection activity occurred with intraperitoneally administered formulations that contained low amounts (0.01 mol%) of the FA-Cys-PEG-PE targeting lipid. Overall, folate-labeled formulations produced an eight- to 10-fold increase in tumor-associated luciferase expression, as compared with the corresponding non-targeted cationic lipid/DNA formulations. These results collectively indicate that transfection of widespread intraperitoneal cancers can be significantly enhanced using folate-targeted techniques.