To assess leukocyte activation during cardiopulmonary bypass, we measured white blood cell and neutrophil counts and lysosomal enzyme release, especially myeloperoxidase and elastase, throughout the operation and for 5 days postoperatively. A newly developed double antibody radioimmunoassay of myeloperoxidase and an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay for detection of the polymorphonuclear elastase-alpha 1-proteinase inhibitor complex were used to determine their plasma levels in 15 patients undergoing elective aorta-coronary bypass grafting. Preoperatively white blood cell counts and plasmatic levels of myeloperoxidase and elastase-alpha 1-proteinase inhibitor were normal. Because no correlation has yet been established between levels of myeloperoxidase and elastase-alpha 1-proteinase inhibitor, the aim of this prospective study was to evaluate the use of these enzyme levels as markers for leukocyte activation in vivo. We addressed the clinical situation of cardiopulmonary bypass because it offered the possibility of monitoring the comparative evolution of blood levels of these enzymes in parallel to white blood cell counts through well-defined steps corresponding to known events. We document the advantages of myeloperoxidase blood levels over elastase measurement as reflecting more rapidly the in vivo activation of leukocytes. The time course kinetics of these three measurements were not parallel. White blood cell counts remained stable at the beginning of bypass, whereas myeloperoxidase levels increased sharply and continuously as soon as bypass was instituted until the end of bypass. Elastase levels also increased, but later than myeloperoxidase, beginning when the patients was rewarmed. High elastase plasma levels persisted later than myeloperoxidase after bypass, in parallel with white blood cell counts. It thus clearly appears that changes in myeloperoxidase levels more rapidly reflect the activation state of leukocytes induced by cardiopulmonary bypass and surgery, whereas peak levels of elastase were delayed and parallel to white blood cell counts. From this model, in which the evolution of leukocyte numbers could be followed in relation with known steps of stimulation, it appears that myeloperoxidase is a sensitive marker for monitoring in vivo activation of white blood cells.