Chronic ITP is due to antibody-induced destruction of platelets by the reticuloendothelial (RE) system. The role of complement in this process is unclear. We measured platelet-associated complement (PAC) components C3, C3bi, C4 and C9 in 16 patients with chronic ITP, in two of these patients prior to and after splenectomy. Competitive solid-phase radioimmunoassays using monoclonal antibody (anti-C3d, anti-C3bi neoantigen or anti-C9) or affinity-purified heterologous antibody (anti-C4) were used. Mean values (+/- SD) of normal subjects (ng/10(7) plts) were: PAC3d 17.6 +/- 6.8; PAC3bi 11.6 +/- 2.3; PAC4 1.6 +/- 0.5; PAC9 9.9 +/- 2.6. Significantly elevated (greater than 2 SD) PAC3, PAC3bi, PAC4 and PAC9 levels occurred in 12/16, 11/14, 10/14 and 5/9 chronic ITP patients. The PAC3, PAC3bi and PAC9 values correlated inversely with the patients' platelet counts (P less than 0.001); PAC4 levels did not. A positive correlation was also noted between PAC3, PAC3bi and PAC9 while PAC4 values showed no correlation. Two patients with preoperative elevation of all four PAC proteins showed normalization of PAC3, PAC3bi and PAC9 values after a splenectomy-induced remission; PAC4 levels remained elevated for up to 5 months after surgery. We conclude that in vivo C activation occurs in most chronic ITP patients with binding of C3 and C9 to the platelet surface. This in vivo C activation may promote more efficient phagocytosis (C3b) and possibly platelet lysis (C5-9) in some ITP patients.