Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP) is characterized by thrombocytopenia and disseminated platelet thrombi throughout the microvasculature. Studies by our group have demonstrated calcium- dependent proteolytic activity (calpain) that is no longer detectable in the serum of patients with acute TTP after their recovery. The purpose of this study was to investigate if the protease activity of TTP was detectable in plasma and, therefore, not an in vitro phenomenon secondary to the formation of serum. Additionally, we looked for evidence of membrane association of the active protease in the patients' samples, which would explain the persistence of its activity in the presence of plasma inhibitors. Acute TTP samples, both serum and plasma, were collected from 10 patients with TTP. Calpain was measured using bioassays for enzyme activity and also by detection of the protein using immunoblotting with an anticalpain monoclonal antibody (MoAb). In all instances, calpain could be detected both functionally and antigenically in the acute TTP sera and plasma. No calpain activity could be detected in any of the controls, although antigenic calpain was detectable in one sample from a patient who had undergone cardiopulmonary bypass surgery. To investigate whether the calpain was associated with microparticles in the plasma, the TTP plasma samples were ultrafiltered and ultracentrifuged. Activity was not lost by passage across a 0.2-micron filter but was detectable only in the pellet following ultracentrifugation. Membrane association of the calpain in the microparticles also was demonstrated using solubilization with Triton X-100. Immunoprecipitation studies demonstrated that the calpain activity could be removed by MoAbs against platelet membrane glycoproteins (IX and IIb/IIa) but not by a MoAb against red blood cell membrane glycophorin. These studies indicate that active calpain is associated with platelet microparticles in plasma from patients with TTP.