Pediatric patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) are at an increased risk of thromboembolic events. Potential responsible mechanisms include the disease process itself, treatment with chemotherapeutic agents (particularly L-Asparaginase [ASP]), or a combination of the disease and treatment. We studied thrombin regulation in 26 consecutive children with ALL and 14 healthy age- matched controls by: (1) plasma concentrations of prothrombin; (2) plasma inhibition of 125I-alpha-thrombin; and (3) four biochemical markers of in vivo thrombin activation (thrombin complexed to its inhibitor antithrombin III [ATIII; TAT], prothrombin fragment 1.2 (F1.2), activated protein C complexed to the inhibitors alpha 1 antitrypsin [APCAT]), and protein C inhibitor (APC-PCI). Measurements were made at presentation before treatment, after treatment with ASP alone, and during combination chemotherapy with and without ASP. At presentation, the capacity to generate thrombin (reflected by plasma prothrombin concentrations) and the capacity to inhibit thrombin (125I- alpha-thrombin--inhibitor complex formation) were similar in children with ALL compared with that for healthy children. After ASP alone or as part of combination chemotherapy, prothrombin levels were preserved, whereas plasma inhibition of 125I-alpha-thrombin decreased significantly because of a decrease in plasma concentrations of inhibitors, most importantly ATIII. After combination chemotherapy without ASP, plasma concentrations of ATIII and the capacity to inhibit 125I-alpha-thrombin returned to normal values, whereas prothrombin levels increased above control values. Thrombin generation in vivo also differed from healthy controls. At presentation, plasma concentrations of three of four markers of in vivo thrombin activity (TAT, F1.2, APCAT, but not APC-PCI) were increased in children with ALL. Neither ASP alone nor combination chemotherapy with or without ASP significantly altered values of these three markers. In summary, although the in vitro capacity to generate thrombin was preserved, the in vitro capacity to inhibit 125I-alpha-thrombin decreased after ASP therapy. Evidence for increased endogenous thrombin generation was documented in children with ALL at presentation and throughout treatment. We speculate that poor regulation of this thrombin may contribute to thrombotic complications in children with ALL.