Entry of antibiotics into phagocytes is necessary for activity against intracellular organisms. Therefore, we examined the uptake of five of the newer antibiotics--roxithromycin (RU 965), imipenem, cefotaxime, trimethoprim, and metronidazole--by human polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMN). Antibiotic uptake by PMN was determined by a velocity gradient centrifugation technique and expressed as the ratio of the cellular concentration of antibiotic to the extracellular concentration (C/E). Cefotaxime, like other beta-lactam antibiotics, was taken up poorly by phagocytes (C/E less than or equal to 0.3). The metronidazole concentration within PMN was similar to the extracellular level. Imipenem bound rapidly to phagocytes (C/E = 3), but cell-associated drug progressively declined during the incubation period. Trimethoprim was well concentrated by PMN (C/E = 9 to 13), and uptake was unexpectedly greater at 25 degrees C than at 37 degrees C. The most striking finding was that roxithromycin was more avidly concentrated by PMN (C/E = 34) than any other antibiotic we studied. Entry of roxithromycin into phagocytes was an active process and displayed saturation kinetics characteristic of a carrier-mediated membrane transport system. Ingestion of microbial particles by PMN slightly decreased the ability of these cells to accumulate roxithromycin (C/E = 24 to 31). These studies identified two antibiotics, trimethoprim and especially roxithromycin, which are markedly concentrated within human PMN and may prove useful in treatment of infections caused by susceptible intracellular organisms.