We hypothesized that changes in plasma retinol-binding protein (RBP) concentration in response to vitamin A administration might be useful for evaluating vitamin A status of very low birth weight infants susceptible to bronchopulmonary dysplasia. We prospectively studied 24 consecutively admitted neonates (birth weight less than 1350 gm, gestational age less than 31 weeks, ventilator dependent for greater than 24 hours after birth), who were eligible to receive 2000 IU supplemental vitamin A by intramuscular injection on postnatal day 1 and on alternate days thereafter for 28 days. In addition to serial assessment of vitamin A status, we measured plasma RBP just before and 1, 3, and 6 hours after an intramuscular injection of vitamin A (2000 IU/kg retinyl palmitate) on days 1 and 28. The percent increase in plasma RBP (delta-RBP) was high (mean +/- SD: 61 +/- 37%) and plasma vitamin A and RBP values were low on day 1, indicative of vitamin A deficiency. Supplemental vitamin A improved vitamin A status of all infants as shown by low delta-RBP (mean +/- SD: 8 +/- 9%) and normal plasma vitamin A and RBP values on day 28. Bronchopulmonary dysplasia was diagnosed in 12 of 24 infants. Infants with bronchopulmonary dysplasia had a higher mean (+/- SD) delta-RBP on day 28 than those without bronchopulmonary dysplasia (13 +/- 10% vs 3 +/- 3%, p less than 0.01), indicative of persistence of low vitamin A status in infants with lung disease despite supplementation. We conclude that the plasma RBP response to vitamin A is a useful indicator of vitamin A status in very low birth weight infants. Although vitamin A supplementation at the dosage used in this study normalizes conventional plasma indexes of vitamin A in very low birth weight infants, the plasma RBP response to vitamin A may continue to reflect persistence of low vitamin A status in the more immature infants with significant lung disease. We suggest that the plasma RBP response to vitamin A may be a useful functional test in such infants.