The processes that underlie the coagulopathy observed in severe infection are not fully understood, but seem to be due to an imbalance in the antithrombotic, and prothrombotic properties of the vascular endothelium. Sulphated glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) present on the vessel wall represent an important component of the non-thrombogenic nature of the endothelium. We have modified an amidolytic assay to study the functional ability of GAGs on human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVECS), and investigate the effect of E. coli endotoxin and neutrophils on HUVEC surface anticoagulant activity (SAA). Neither endotoxin alone, nor separated neutrophils at lower concentrations (less than 10(6) neutrophils per ml), had major effects on endothelial SAA. When activated neutrophils were incubated with HUVECS pre-stimulated with endotoxin, a significant decrease in SAA was seen using either plasma (mean percentage of control 67.8% +/- sem 7.8; p < 0.02) or purified ATIII (mean percentage of control 69% +/- sem 4.6; p < 0.001). We suggest that alterations in endothelial surface GAGs may occur during sepsis and inflammation, and that this may have important consequences for vascular function. This system will allow the further study of the role of GAGs in the intravascular thrombosis of severe sepsis, and other inflammatory diseases.