Impairment of renal and splanchnic perfusion during and after cardiopulmonary bypass may be responsible for acute renal failure and endotoxin-mediated systemic inflammation, respectively. We hypothesised that fenoldopam, a selective dopamine receptor agonist, would preserve renal function after cardiopulmonary bypass through its selective renal vasodilatory and natriuretic effects, and increase gastrointestinal mucosal perfusion by selective splanchnic vasodilation. We examined the effects of fenoldopam on haemodynamic parameters, creatinine clearance, fractional excretion of sodium, urine output, free water clearance and gastric mucosal pH in 31 patients undergoing elective coronary revascularisation. Patients were randomly assigned to receive continuous infusions of fenoldopam 0.1 microg x kg(-1) x min(-1) (n = 16) or placebo (n = 15). Renal parameters were measured: during a 24-h period before hospital admission, during cardiopulmonary bypass, from completion of cardiopulmonary bypass until 4 h later, from 4 to 8 h after cardiopulmonary bypass, and from 8 to 14 h after cardiopulmonary bypass. Gastric intramucosal pH was measured using a gastric tonometer before, during and after cardiopulmonary bypass. In the placebo group, but not the fenoldopam group, mean (SD) creatinine clearance decreased after separation from cardiopulmonary bypass, from 107 (36) to 71 (22) ml x min(-1) (p < 0.01) and from 107 (36) to 79 (26) ml x min(-1) (p < 0.01) for the 0-4 h and 4-8 h intervals after cardiopulmonary bypass, respectively. Changes in intramucosal pH were similar in both groups. The findings are consistent with the hypothesis that fenoldopam possesses a renoprotective effect in patients undergoing cardiopulmonary bypass.