Chronic pulmonary infection is the major cause of morbidity and mortality in cystic fibrosis (CF). Recombinant human deoxyribonuclease (rhDNase) in vitro has been shown to dramatically reduce the viscoelasticity of the sputum from CF patients. Phase II and III clinical trials have shown the drug to be safe, and that patients with a forced vital capacity (FVC) of > 40% predicted show an improvement in pulmonary function when receiving rhDNase. The current study evaluates the safety and efficacy of rhDNase in the most severly ill CF patients (FVC < 40% predicted). A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial in which patients received either 2.5 mg rhDNase twice daily or placebo for a period of 14 days followed by a 6 month open extension period (OEP) is reported. Seventy patients were recruited for the double-blind study, and 64 entered the OEP of whom 38 completed. During the OEP, all patients received 2.5 mg rhDNase twice daily. In both the double-blind period and the OEP the drug appeared to be safe. During the double-blind study, forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) and FVC improved in both groups but there was no statistically significant difference between the groups. In the OEP, there was mean improvement in percentage predicted FEV1 and FVC, 9 and 18%, respectively, for all patients participating. In conclusion, DNase is safe when administered in conjunction with a rigorous regimen of chest physiotherapy to severely ill patients (FVC < 40% predicted) with CF. The double-blind, 14 day study showed no significant improvement in pulmonary function but some patients may have improved after longer administration of rhDNase.