Recently, we have documented an abnormal in vivo complement metabolism in Type 1 diabetic children treated with monocomponent porcine insulin Monotard MC and its correction after switch-over to human insulin Protaphane HM. This prompted us to investigate the ability of different kinds of insulin preparations to induce complement activation in vitro. Freshly collected serum samples from healthy blood donors were incubated with commercial rapid and intermediate or long-acting (by protamine sulphate (PS) or zinc) insulin preparations for 2 hours at 37 degrees C. The C3d content of the supernatants was measured by turbidimetry as a marker of C3 complement fraction consumption. Only long-acting preparations of insulins without protamine sulphate were associated with highly significant increased levels of C3d, whatever the source of insulin, animal or human. Moreover, addition of exogenous protamine sulphate was able to inhibit the C3 conversion. This effect was dose-dependent and peaked at the concentration of commercial NPH insulin preparations. The mechanism by which protamine sulphate inhibits complement activation in vitro could be related to its ability to interfere with the physical nature of the solid surfaces presented by the insulin crystals. Indeed, insulin crystals were rapidly cleared (< 5 min) in the incubated serum when small doses of protamine sulphate were added. The complement activating capacity of long-acting insulin without protamine was dose dependent, equivalent to the known complement activator Zymosan, and abolished in the presence of EDTA. In conclusion, the present study has documented the ability of some protracted insulin preparations to activate the complement system in vitro if they are devoided of protamine sulphate. On the other hand, short-acting and NPH insulins are not complement activators.