An automated high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) method for the determination of formoterol in human plasma with improved sensitivity has been developed and validated. Formoterol and CGP 47086, the internal standard, were extracted from plasma (1 ml) using a cation-exchange solid-phase extraction (SPE) cartridge. The compounds were eluted with pH 6 buffer solution-methanol (70:30, v/v) and the eluate was further diluted with water. An aliquot of the extract solution was injected and analyzed by HPLC. The extraction, dilution, injection and chromatographic analysis were combined and automated using the automate (ASPEC) system. The chromatographic separations were achieved on a 5 microm, Hypersil ODS analytical column (200 mm x 3 mm I.D.), using (pH 6 phosphate buffer, 0.035 M + 20 mg/l EDTA)-MeOH-CH3CN (70:25:5, v/v/v) as the mobile phase at a flow-rate of 0.4 ml/min. The analytes were detected with electrochemical detection at an operating potential of +0.63 V. Intra-day accuracy and precision were assessed from the relative recoveries of calibration/quality control plasma samples in the concentration range of 7.14 to 238 pmol/l of formoterol base. The accuracy over the entire concentration range varied from 81 to 105%, and the precision (C.V.) ranged from 3 to 14%. Inter-day accuracy and precision were assessed in the concentration range of 11.9 to 238 pmol/l of formoterol base in plasma. The accuracy over the entire concentration range varied from 98 to 109%, and precision ranged from 8 to 19%. At the limit of quantitation (LOQ) of 11.9 pmol/l for inter-day measurements, the recovery value was 109% and C.V. was 19%. As shown from intra-day accuracy and precision results, favorable conditions (a newly used column, a newly washed detector cell and moderate residual cell current level) allowed us to reach a LOQ of 7.14 pmol/l of formoterol base (3 pg/ml of formoterol fumarate dihydrate). Improvement of the limit of detection by a factor of about 10 was reached as compared to the previously described methods. The method has been applied for quantifying formoterol in plasma after 120 microg drug inhalation to volunteers. Formoterol was still measurable at 24 h post-dosing in most subjects and a slow elimination of formoterol from plasma beyond 6-8 h after inhalation was demonstrated for the first time thanks to the sensitivity of the method.