In cystic fibrosis (CF), the clinical effectiveness of aerosolized antibiotics is controversial. Previous investigators have not considered the type of nebulizer, droplet size, and dose to the lung in assessing the results of aerosol therapy. The present study tests the importance of these factors by standardizing an aerosol system for delivery of antibiotics and other agents to patients with CF. Particle size, distribution, and output from a commercially available nebulizer were measured. Thirteen patients with CF inhaled aerosol (MMAD = 1.1 micron) containing gentamicin (160 mg in nebulizer) and 99mTc-labeled human serum albumin. Patients' sputum and serum were analyzed for gentamicin levels by immunoenzymatic assay (Emit; Syva Corp., Palo Alto, CA). Using a gamma camera and suitable filters, central versus peripheral deposition (C/P ratio) and whole lung deposition were measured and related to sputum gentamicin levels. Gentamicin deposit averaged 12.3 mg +/- 5.9 (SD) or 7.69% of the original amount placed in the nebulizer. Peak sputum levels averaged 376.6 micrograms/ml +/- 275, whereas serum levels were undetectable in all patients. When peak sputum levels were normalized for the amount deposited, a close correlation with C/P ratio was obtained (r = 0.88, p less than 0.05). Furthermore, an inverse relationship was found between the C/P ratio and the %FEV1 (r = 0.76, p less than 0.05). Finally, a bell-shaped relationship between deposited dose and minute ventilation was seen in the patients (r = 0.88, p less than 0.05), i.e., an optimal minute ventilation was shown. These relationships may be important when designing future clinical studies.