Heparin-induced thrombocytopenia/thrombosis (HITP) is thought to be mediated by immunoglobulins that activate platelets in the presence of pharmacologic concentrations of heparin, but the molecular basis for this relatively common and often serious complication of heparin therapy has not been established. We found that plasma from each of 12 patients with HITP contained high titer (> or = 1:200) antibodies that reacted with immobilized complexes of heparin and platelet factor 4 (PF4), a heparin-binding protein contained in platelet alpha-granules. Recombinant human PF4 behaved similarly to PF4 isolated from platelets in this assay system. Complexes formed at an apparent heparin/PF4 molecular ratio of approximately 1:2 (fresh heparin) and approximately 1:12 (outdated heparin) were most effective in binding antibody. Immune complexes consisting of PF4, heparin, and antibody reacted with resting platelets; this interaction was inhibited by a monoclonal antibody specific for the Fc gamma RII receptor and by excess heparin. Human umbilical vein endothelial cells, known to express heparin-like glycosaminoglycan molecules on their surface, were recognized by antibody in the presence of PF4 alone; this reaction was inhibited by excess heparin, but not by anti-Fc gamma RII. Antibodies reactive with heparin/PF4 were not found in normal plasma, but IgG and IgM antibodies were detected at dilutions of 1:10 (IgG) and 1:50 (IgM) in 3 of 50 patients (6%) with other types of immune thrombocytopenia. These findings indicate that antibodies associated with HITP react with PF4 complexed with heparin in solution or with glycosaminoglycan molecules on the surface of endothelial cells and provide the basis for a new hypothesis to explain the development of thrombocytopenia with thrombosis or disseminated intravascular coagulation in patients sensitive to heparin.