The release of cytoplasmic heart fatty acid-binding protein (H-FABP) into the plasma of cardiac patients up to 38 hr after the onset of the first clinical symptoms of acute myocardial infarction (AMI) was studied, using a sensitive direct and noncompetitive Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay of the antigen capture type (sandwich ELISA), newly developed for the measurement of small amounts of human H-FABP in plasma samples. Plasma levels of H-FABP were compared with plasma activity levels of the myocardial cytoplasmic enzymes creatine kinase MB (CK-MB) and alpha-hydroxybutyrate dehydrogenase (alpha-HBDH). Upper normal levels of H-FABP (19 micrograms/l), CK-MB (10 U/l) and alpha-HBDH (160 U/l) as determined in plasma from 72 blood donors served as threshold levels. H-FABP levels were significantly elevated above their threshold level within 3 hr after AMI. Peak levels of H-FABP, CK-MB and alpha-HBDH were reached 4.1 +/- 0.9 hr, 8.4 +/- 1.4 hr and 25.0 +/- 9.5 hr (means +/- S.D., n = 10) after acute myocardial infarction, respectively. Serial time curves of the plasma contents of H-FABP reveal that after myocardial infarction H-FABP is released in substantial amounts from human hearts. In 18 out of 22 patients with established AMI the plasma FABP level was at or above the threshold level in blood-samples taken within 3.5 hr after the first onset of symptoms of AMI, while for CK-MB this applied to 9 patients and for alpha-HBDH to 6 patients. These findings suggest that for an early indication of acute myocardial infarction in man cytoplasmic heart fatty acid-binding protein is more suitable than heart type creatine kinase MB and/or alpha-hydroxybutyrate dehydrogenase.