We assessed the utility of liver-targeted vesicles as a drug delivery system for the treatment of liver diseases. Small, unilamellar vesicles (mean diameter, 60-80 nm) composed of dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine, cholesterol, dipalmitoylphosphatidylglycerol and digalactosyldiacylglycerol (mol ratios, 40:40:5:15) are rapidly cleared from the blood in rats after intravenous injection. In vivo organ distribution shows that the liver is the major site of vesicle accumulation, with roughly 60-80% of the vesicle contents delivered to the liver. Isolated, perfused rat liver experiments show that the uptake is due to the hepatic asialoglycoprotein receptor, and the uptake process occurs with minimal vesicle leakage. At low doses of the vesicles, the single pass extraction by the liver is around 50%, which means that this vesicle formulation operates close to optimal efficiency as a drug delivery system to the liver. Binding of vesicles to the liver was determined to saturate at 6.5 mg total lipid/kg body weight, with a maximum steady-state turnover rate of vesicles at 37 degrees C of 79 micrograms lipid/min per kg body weight. This gives a receptor recycling time of around 80 min. We have incorporated this information into a pharmacokinetic model of vesicle distribution which quantitatively predicts the kinetics and dose dependence of vesicle uptake by the liver in vivo. This information can be used to optimize vesicle-mediated drug delivery to the liver.