Recent studies have revealed a role for platelets and the platelet-adhesive proteins, fibronectin and von Willebrand factor (vWF) in platelet-tumor cell interaction in vitro and metastasis in vivo. The present report documents the effect of thrombin treatment of platelets on this interaction in vitro and in vivo. In vitro, thrombin at 100-1,000 mU/ml maximally stimulated the adhesion of six different tumor cell lines from three different species two- to fivefold. As little as 1-10 mU/ml was effective. The effect of thrombin was specific (inhibitable by hirudin, dansyl-arginine N-(3-ethyl-1,5 pentanediyl) amide and unreactive with the inactive thrombin analogue N-P-tosyl-L-phenylchloromethylketone-thrombin and D-phenylalanyl-L-propyl-L-arginine chloromethylketone-thrombin (PPACK-thrombin), and required high-affinity thrombin receptors (competition with PPACK-thrombin but not with N-P-tosyl-L-lysine-chloromethyl-ketone-thrombin). Functionally active thrombin was required on the platelet surface. Binding of tumor cells to thrombin-activated platelets was inhibitable by agents known to interfere with the platelet GPIIb-GPIIIa integrin: monoclonal antibody 10E5, tetrapeptide RGDS and gamma chain fibrinogen decapeptide LGGAKQAGDV, as well as polyclonal antibodies against the platelet adhesive ligands, fibronectin and vWF. In vivo, thrombin at 250-500 mU per animal increased murine pulmonary metastases fourfold with CT26 colon carcinoma cells and 68-413-fold with B16 amelanotic melanoma cells. Thus, thrombin amplifies tumor-platelet adhesion in vitro two- to fivefold via occupancy of high-affinity platelet thrombin receptors, and modulation of GPIIb-GPIIIa adhesion via an RGD-dependent mechanism. In vivo, thrombin enhances tumor metastases 4-413-fold with two different tumor cell lines.