Metabolic abnormalities occur in biguanide-treated diabetic patients. We investigated the relationship between plasma metformin and phenformin concentrations and metabolic effects. Drug levels were measured in 37 type II diabetic patients by HPLC. The method was sensitive, specific, and linear over a wide range of drug concentrations. Metformin and phenformin values ranged from 236 to 718 ng/ml and from 28 to 114 ng/ml, respectively. The plasma metformin level was correlated with triglycerides (r = -0.55; P less than 0.05) but not with drug dosage, plasma glucose, HbA1, creatinine, creatinine clearance, lactate, pyruvate, lipid, and clinical parameters. Plasma phenformin concentrations correlated with lactate (r = 0.49; P less than 0.05) and HbA1 (r = 0.50; P less than 0.05) but not with drug dosage, parameters of diabetes control, creatinine, creatinine clearance, pyruvate, and clinical parameters. The clinical usefulness of this HPLC method, the evidence that the increase of lactate is related to the circulating phenformin levels, and the demonstration that the metformin effect on triglyceride metabolism is correlated to plasma drug levels are the positive findings of this work.