Large (Sf greater than 100) and small (Sf 100-20) very low density lipoprotein (VLDL) particles were isolated by density gradient ultracentrifugation and characterized chemically in 8 patients with primary hypertriglyceridemia before and after 6 weeks treatment with 4 grammes daily of nicotinic acid (NA). Concomitant changes in high density lipoprotein (HDL) subclass distribution were determined by gradient gel electrophoresis. Small VLDL was subjected to lipolysis in vitro by incubation with bovine lipoprotein lipase before and after NA, and the change in the lipolytic end-product isolated in the low density lipoprotein (LDL) fraction was investigated. Reductions were achieved in the plasma levels of triglycerides, free and esterified cholesterol, phospholipids and proteins in the two VLDL subfractions. In all, the composition of both large and small VLDL particles changed towards potentially less atherogenic particles that were poorer in cholesteryl esters. The HDL cholesterol concentration increased and the HDL protein distribution on gradient gel electrophoresis changed towards larger particles. The mechanism behind the change in cholesterol distribution between VLDL and HDL after NA treatment is unclear, but it could possibly relate to decreased lipid transfer activity. NA reduced the content of apolipoprotein B in both VLDL subclasses and did not decrease the calculated particle size or the number of triglyceride molecules per particle, indicating a reduction of VLDL particle number rather than of particle size. The LDL density fraction isolated after lipolysis in vitro of small VLDL contained less total cholesterol and phospholipids and had a density profile more similar to native LDL after the patients had been treated with NA.