To assess the development of oxidative stress in cardiac ischemia/reperfusion, the resulting depletion of plasma ascorbate was monitored by electron spin resonance spectroscopic detection of ascorbyl free radical (AFR) in a homogeneous group of 12 patients undergoing aortic valve replacement. Dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) was used as an enhancer and stabilizer for AFR in plasma separated from blood samples collected 15 min before incision, 10 min before aortic declamping, and sequentially during the initial 30 min of reperfusion. Plasma DMSO/AFR levels of patients were found to be significantly lower than in healthy subjects (-25%), further decreased upon ischemia (-35%), dropped to their lowest values within the first 10 min of reperfusion (-46%), and did not recover their initial values within 30 min following reflow. Cardiac index measurements revealed a still depressed heart function 4 h postdeclamping and a more delayed tissue injury was evidenced by cardiac myosin and myoglobin release in plasma. DMSO/AFR levels at early reperfusion were slightly (+ 12%) higher in plasma obtained from coronary sinus samples than in plasma from peripheral blood, suggesting an extra ascorbate release from the injured heart tissue. The close analogy between these results and the reported measurements of other plasma markers of oxidative stress, including ascorbate, indicates that the present method could be of great value in clinical practice.