Endothelial cells are highly sensitive to changes in the extracellular milieu. Sepsis results in activation of inflammatory and coagulation pathways. We hypothesized that sepsis-associated mediators may alter the response capacity (so-called "set point") of endothelial cells. Human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVEC) were preincubated in the presence or absence of tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha, lipopolysaccharide (LPS), hypoxia, hyperthermia, and/or high glucose; treated with or without thrombin for 4 h; and then processed for RNase protection assays of selected activation markers. Priming with TNF-alpha and LPS significantly inhibited thrombin-mediated induction of vascular cell adhesion molecule-1, intercellular adhesion molecule-1, tissue factor, and E-selectin, but not platelet-derived growth factor-A or CD44. In electrophoretic mobility shift assays, thrombin-treated HUVEC demonstrated inducible binding of p65 NF-kappaB, an effect that was significantly blunted by pretreatment of cells with TNF-alpha and LPS. Consistent with these results, TNF-alpha and LPS attenuated the effect of thrombin on IkappaB phosphorylation, total cytoplasmic IkappaB, and nuclear translocation of p65 NF-kappaB. The inhibitory effect of TNF-alpha on thrombin signaling persisted for up to 24 h following removal of the cytokine. Taken together, these data suggest that inflammatory mediators prime endothelial cells to modulate subsequent thrombin response.