A 68-year-old man on chronic hemodialysis for 6 years, presented with a spontaneous psoas muscle hemorrhage. Investigations showed intermittently elevated activated partial-thromboplastin time and thrombin time. Preliminary investigations suggested a heparin-like inhibitor in the patient's plasma, but no anti-Xa activity could be detected. Investigation of the ability of patient plasma to inhibit exogenous thrombin showed that most thrombin was inhibited by heparin cofactor II, in contrast to normal plasma in which most thrombin was inhibited by antithrombin III. Treatment of plasma with glycosaminoglycan-degrading enzymes suggested the presence of dermatan sulfate (DS) in patient plasma. This was confirmed in a heparin cofactor II-dependent antithrombin assay for DS that showed anticoagulant equivalent to 2.2 +/- 0.3 micrograms/mL (mean +/- SD) of porcine mucosal DS. Of this activity, approximately 90% was sensitive to enzymes that degrade DS. The glycosaminoglycan containing fraction of plasma was isolated and subjected to gel chromatography. Anticoagulant activity eluted from Sephadex G-100 (Pharmacia, Montreal, Quebec, Canada) as two peaks with Kav of 0.10 and 0.45. After treatment with base, the Kav of the higher molecular weight species was increased to 0.55. This activity was completely sensitive to enzymes that degrade DS. Thus, the active DS was present as a proteoglycan. The lower molecular weight material was not sensitive to enzymes that degrade DS or heparan sulfate and it was active in the heparin cofactor II- dependent antithrombin assay but not in an antithrombin III-dependent antithrombin assay. This activity was not degraded by heating. Subsequently, measurement of DS activity was performed in plasmas obtained from eight other patients on hemodialysis before administration of heparin that showed that all patients had DS activity present that varied from 0.05 to 0.4 microgram/mL. No enzyme-resistant activity could be shown in these patients. In summary, a circulating anticoagulant with properties of DS is present in patients requiring hemodialysis.