Studies from this laboratory (Mayer et al. (1986) Biochim. Biophys. Acta 857, 123-126) have shown that doxorubicin can be accumulated into liposomal systems in response to transmembrane pH gradients (inside acidic). Here, detailed characterizations of the drug uptake and retention properties of these systems are performed. It is shown that for egg phosphatidylcholine (EPC) vesicles (mean diameter of 170 nm) exhibiting transmembrane pH gradients (inside acidic) doxorubicin can be sequestered into the interior aqueous compartment to achieve drug trapping efficiencies in excess of 98% and drug-to-lipid ratios of 0.36:1 (mol/mol). Drug-to-lipid ratios as high as 1.7:1 (mol/mol) can be obtained under appropriate conditions. Lower drug-to-lipid ratios are required to achieve trapping efficiencies in excess of 98% for smaller (less than or equal to 100 nm) systems. Doxorubicin trapping efficiencies and uptake capacities are related ito maintenance of the transmembrane pH gradient during encapsulation as well as the interaction between doxorubicin and entrapped citrate. This citrate-doxorubicin interaction increases drug uptake levels above those predicted by the Henderson-Hasselbach relationship. Increased drug-to-lipid ratios and trapping efficiencies are observed for higher interior buffering capacities. Retention of a large transmembrane pH gradient (greater than 2 units) after entrapment reduces the rate of drug leakage from the liposomes. For example, EPC/cholesterol (55:45, mol/mol) liposomal doxorubicin systems can be achieved which released less than 5% of encapsulated doxorubicin (drug-to-lipid molar ratio = 0.33:1) over 24 h at 37 degrees C. This pH gradient-dependent encapsulation technique is extremely versatile, and well characterized liposomal doxorubicin preparations can be generated to exhibit a wide range of properties such as vesicle size, lipid composition, drug-to-lipid ratio and drug release kinetics. This entrapment procedure therefore appears well suited for use in therapeutic applications. Finally, a rapid colorimetric test for determining the amount of unencapsulated doxorubicin in liposomal systems is described.