The role of thrombin inhibition in platelet vessel wall interaction and thrombus growth was studied under controlled flow conditions. Natural hirudin and recombinant hirudin (r-hirudin), which are specific thrombin inhibitors, were compared with heparinized blood (1.8 +/- 0.2 U/mL) and Ca(2+)-chelated blood in their potential to inhibit platelet interaction and thrombus growth on two biologic vascular surfaces and one immobilized vessel wall component. The substrates were perfused by flowing blood at shear rates typical of patent and stenosed arteries (212 to 1,690/s) for 5 minutes. Platelet deposition was measured by In- 111-labeled platelets. We found that both natural and r-hirudin have similar effects on platelet-substrate interaction. As compared with heparin, platelet deposition to mildly damaged vessel wall and digested collagen type I was not reduced by hirudin or citrate. However, hirudin and citrate significantly reduced platelet deposition to severely damaged vessel wall (platelets x 10(6)/cm2: 93 +/- 10 in heparinized blood v 50 +/- 7 in blood treated with 100 U/mL r-hirudin). Therefore, thrombus growth on areas of severe wall damage is in part dependent on local thrombin production at the site of vascular damage. We also found that hirudin added to heparinized blood reduced platelet deposition to severely injured wall but not to subendothelium or collagen-coated slides. Hirudin added to citrated blood did not affect platelet deposition. Our study indicates that local thrombin generation at the site of severe injury will induce platelet activation and deposition even in the presence of average therapeutic heparin levels that inhibit blood coagulation.