The purpose of this study was to evaluate the permeability characteristics of a previously reported in vitro corneal model that utilizes SIRC rabbbit corneal cells and to investigate the permeability of three novel esters of phenylephrone chemical delivery systems (CDS) under different pH conditions using this in vitro model. The SIRC rabbit corneal cell line was grown on transwell polycarbonate membranes, and the barrier properties were assessed by measuring transepithelial electrical resistance (TEER) using a voltohmmeter. The permeabilities of esters of phenylephrone CDS across the SIRC cell layers were measured over a pH range 4.0-7. 4. The esters tested include phenylacetyl (1), isovaleryl (2), and pivalyl (3). The SIRC rabbit corneal cell line, when grown on permeable filters, formed tight monolayers of high electrical resistance with TEER values increasing from 71.6 +/- 20.8 Omega.cm2 at day 3 in culture to 2233.42 +/- 15.2 Omega.cm2 at day 8 in culture and remained constant through day 14 in culture. The transepithelial permeability coefficients (Papp) at pH 7.4 ranged from 0.58 x 10(-6) cm/s for the hydrophilic marker, mannitol, to 43. 5 x 10(-6) cm/s for the most lipophilic molecule, testosterone. The Papp at pH 7.4 for phenylephrine was 4.21 x 10(-6) cm/s. The Papp values and the lag times of the three esters of phenylephrone were pH dependent. The Papp for 1, 2, and 3 at pH 7.4 were 14.76 x 10(-6), 13.19 x 10(-6), and 12.86 x 10(-6) cm/s, respectively and the permeabilities decreased at conditions below pH 7.4. The lag times at pH 7.4 were 0.10, 0.17, and 0.12 h for 1, 2, and 3, respectively, and the values increased at lower pH conditions. The TEER values of SIRC cell line observed at day 8 to day 14 in the present investigation are similar to the resistance value reported for rabbit cornea (2 kOmega.cm2). All the esters showed significantly (p < 0.05) higher permeabilities than phenylephrine at pH 7.4. The rate and extent of transport of the drugs across the cell layers were influenced by the fraction of ionized and un-ionized species and the intrinsic partition coefficient of the drug. The results indicate that the permeability of ophthalmic drugs through ocular membranes may be predicted by measuring the permeability through the new in vitro cell culture model.