To determine whether circulating levels of endothelin-1 (ET-1), a potent vasoconstrictor peptide, are elevated in children with pulmonary hypertension and related to the degree of hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction, we measured arterial and mixed venous plasma concentrations of immunoreactive ET-1 (irET-1) in 13 children during cardiac catheterization. Clinical diagnoses in seven children with pulmonary hypertension (PH) included chronic lung disease (four children), congenital heart disease after surgical repair (two children), and primary ("reactive") pulmonary hypertension (one child). Blood samples were simultaneously obtained from pulmonary artery (venous) and systemic arterial sites during baseline conditions. Plasma irET-1 was elevated in children with PH (12.3 +/- 3.4 versus 3.6 +/- 0.7 pg/ml, PH versus non-PH; p < 0.01). Arterial/venous irET-1 ratios in the PH group (1.1 +/- 0.2) were not different from those in the non-PH group. During acute hypoxia, mean Ppa increased from 27 +/- 3 to 40 +/- 5 mm Hg. Basal irET-1 correlated strongly with the degree of elevation of mean Ppa during acute hypoxia (r = 0.69; p < 0.02). We conclude that irET-1 levels are often elevated in children with PH, and they are strongly correlated with pulmonary vasoreactivity during acute hypoxia. Whether elevated irET-1 levels contribute directly to or are markers of altered pulmonary vascular tone and reactivity in children with PH remains speculative.