BACKGROUND--The neutrophil elastase inhibitor, secretory leucocyte protease inhibitor (SLPI), is a potential therapeutic tool in inflammatory lung diseases such as cystic fibrosis and pulmonary emphysema. The distribution and disappearance in the lung of aerosolised recombinant SLPI (rSLPI) was investigated in healthy humans and in patients with cystic fibrosis or alpha 1-antitrypsin-associated emphysema. METHODS--To distinguish aerosolised rSLPI from endogenous SLPI the recombinant inhibitor was radiolabelled with 99m-technetium (99mTc) pertechnetate. Distribution and disappearance of aerosolised 99mTc-rSLPI in the lungs were studied by gamma radiation imaging. RESULTS--The deposition of 99mTc-rSLPI in normal volunteers was homogeneous in all lung lobes, while in patients with cystic fibrosis or emphysema only well ventilated areas showed deposition of the aerosol. The disappearance rate of 99mTc-rSLPI was biexponential. The half life of the rapid phase was 0.2-2.8 hours, while that of the slow phase was more than 24 hours. CONCLUSIONS--Future aerosol therapy with rSLPI will be most beneficial for well ventilated lung tissue that needs protection against neutrophil derived elastase. It may be more difficult to neutralise the burden of elastase in poorly ventilated, highly inflamed areas as are seen in cystic fibrosis.