Erythromycin mimics the effect of the gastrointestinal polypeptide motilin on gastrointestinal motility, probably by binding to motilin receptors and acting as a motilin agonist. Erythromycin may thus have clinical application in patients with disturbances of gastroduodenal motility, such as diabetic gastroparesis. To examine this possibility, we studied the effect of erythromycin on gastric emptying in 10 patients with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus and gastroparesis. We studied the emptying of liquids and solids simultaneously on separate days after the intravenous administration of erythromycin (200 mg) or placebo, using a double-isotope technique and a double-blind, crossover design. Erythromycin shortened the prolonged gastric-emptying times for both liquids and solids to normal. For example, 120 minutes after the ingestion of a solid meal, mean (+/- SE) retention was 63 +/- 9 percent with placebo and 4 +/- 1 percent with erythromycin, as compared with 9 +/- 3 percent in 10 healthy subjects. The corresponding values 120 minutes after the ingestion of a liquid meal were 32 +/- 4, 9 +/- 3, and 4 +/- 1 percent, respectively. Gastric emptying also improved, but to a lesser degree, in the 10 patients after four weeks of treatment with oral erythromycin (250 mg three times a day). These preliminary results suggest that erythromycin may have therapeutic value in patients with severe diabetic gastroparesis.