Plasma and serum from patients with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP) can cause activation and aggregation of normal human platelets in vitro. It is possible that this platelet-activating factor contributes to the disease. In this report we describe studies designed to identify the platelet-activating factor in TTP. Platelet activation by sera from 15 patients with TTP was inhibited by leupeptin, iodoacetamide, and antipain but not by phenylmethylsulphonylfluoride, epsilon-aminocaproic acid, soybean trypsin inhibitor, aprotinin, and D-phenylanyl-1-prolyl-1- arginine chloromethyl ketone. These studies suggested that the platelet- activating factor in TTP serum was a cysteine protease. We confirmed that a calcium-dependent cysteine protease (CDP) was present in the sera of each of the 15 patients when we used an assay based on the ability of CDP to proteolyse platelet membrane glycoprotein 1b (GP1b) and hence to abolish the ability of CDP-treated normal platelets to agglutinate in the presence of ristocetin and von Willebrand factor. This proteolytic activity was inhibited by EDTA, leupeptin, antipain, iodoacetamide, and by N-ethyl-maleamide (NEM) but not by the serine protease inhibitors. Activity was detected in 15 of 15 patients with TTP tested before therapy was begun. In contrast, no activity was detected in the serum of any of five of the TTP patients tested in remission or in any of the sera from 36 patients with thrombocytopenia and 423 nonthrombocytopenic controls. To look for in vivo CDP activity in patients with TTP, we studied platelets from two patients with acute TTP (drawn into acid-citrate-dextrose, NEM, and leupeptin). These platelets showed a loss of GP1b from the platelet surface. Both patients were also studied in remission: GP1b on the platelet surface had returned to normal. These studies provide evidence that CDP is present in the sera of patients with TTP, that it is specific to this disease, and that is is active in vivo as well as in vitro. We postulate that a disorder of CDP homeostasis plays a major role in the pathophysiology of TTP.