Patients with sickle cell anemia experience severe vascular occlusive phenomena including acute pain crisis and cerebral infarction. Obstruction occurs at both the microvascular and the arterial level, and the clinical presentation of vascular events is heterogeneous, suggesting a complex etiology. Interaction between sickle erythrocytes and the endothelium may contribute to vascular occlusion due to alteration of endothelial function. To investigate this hypothesis, human vascular endothelial cells were overlaid with sickle or normal erythrocytes and stimulated to synthesize DNA. The erythrocytes were sedimented onto replicate monolayers by centrifugation for 10 minutes at 17 g to insure contact with the endothelial cells. Incorporation of 3H-thymidine into endothelial cell DNA was markedly inhibited during contact with sickle erythrocytes. This inhibitory effect was enhanced more than twofold when autologous sickle plasma was present during endothelial cell labeling. Normal erythrocytes, with or without autologous plasma, had a modest effect on endothelial cell DNA synthesis. When sickle erythrocytes in autologous sickle plasma were applied to endothelial monolayers for 1 minute, 10 minutes, or 1 hour and then removed, subsequent DNA synthesis by the endothelial cells was inhibited by 30% to 40%. Although adherence of sickle erythrocytes to the endothelial monolayers was observed under these experimental conditions, the effect of sickle erythrocytes on endothelial DNA synthesis occurred in the absence of significant adherence. Hence, human endothelial cell DNA synthesis is partially inhibited by contact with sickle erythrocytes. The inhibitory effect of sickle erythrocytes occurs during a brief (1 minute) contact with the endothelial monolayers, and persists for at least 6 hours of 3H-thymidine labeling. These results indicate that interaction between sickle erythrocytes and the endothelium may result in altered endothelial function. This altered endothelial function may contribute to the development of vascular occlusive phenomena in patients with sickle cell anemia.