Acute lung injury (ALI) and the acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) are characterized by rapid-onset respiratory failure following a variety of direct and indirect insults to the parenchyma or vasculature of the lungs. Mortality from ALI/ARDS is substantial, and current therapy primarily emphasizes mechanical ventilation and judicial fluid management plus standard treatment of the initiating insult and any known underlying disease. Current pharmacotherapy for ALI/ARDS is not optimal, and there is a significant need for more effective medicinal chemical agents for use in these severe and lethal lung injury syndromes. To facilitate future chemical-based drug discovery research on new agent development, this paper reviews present pharmacotherapy for ALI/ARDS in the context of biological and biochemical drug activities. The complex lung injury pathophysiology of ALI/ARDS offers an array of possible targets for drug therapy, including inflammation, cell and tissue injury, vascular dysfunction, surfactant dysfunction, and oxidant injury. Added targets for pharmacotherapy outside the lungs may also be present, since multiorgan or systemic pathology is common in ALI/ARDS. The biological and physiological complexity of ALI/ARDS requires the consideration of combined-agent treatments in addition to single-agent therapies. A number of pharmacologic agents have been studied individually in ALI/ARDS, with limited or minimal success in improving survival. However, many of these agents have complementary biological/biochemical activities with the potential for synergy or additivity in combination therapy as discussed in this article.