Activated protein C (APC) is inhibited by two major plasma inhibitors (PCIs). To find evidence for in vivo complexation of APC, immunoblotting studies were performed on plasmas of 85 patients with suspected disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC). Samples from 62 of these patients contained 5% to 35% of protein C antigen in APC:inhibitor complexes, indicating that protein C activation and inhibition had occurred. In 24 normal plasmas, no detectable APC:PCI complexes were observed (less than 5%). Patients with higher levels of complexes had more abnormal coagulation test data for DIC. The major band of APC complexes detected by anti-protein C antibodies did not react with antibodies to the heparin-dependent protein C inhibitor (PCI- 1) previously described. Rather, APC was complexed with another recently described plasma protein C inhibitor, PCI-2. Immunoblotting studies for protein S, the cofactor for APC, revealed that the majority of the DIC patient plasmas contained a higher than normal proportion of protein S in cleaved form, suggesting that protein S may have been proteolytically inactivated. Protein S total antigen levels were also found to be low in DIC patients, excluding those with malignancy. These studies support the hypothesis that the protein C pathway is activated during DIC.