Studies in mice have identified the ob gene product, leptin, as a signaling factor regulating body weight homeostasis and energy balance. Defective production of the encoded protein may be one of the causes for the development of obesity. Using a high affinity antibody, that in immunohistochemical studies specifically stained human adipocytes, a radioimmunoassay was established and leptin immunoreactivity was quantified in plasma of lean and obese human subjects. Chromatographic analysis suggested that the immunoreactive material in plasma is identical to that found in extracts from human fat and represent a protein with a molecular size of approximately 16 kD. Fasting levels were measured in plasma of 75 lean and obese human subjects (body mass index (BMI) 17.7 - 87.3). The mean concentration of leptin in plasma of lean subjects (BMI < or = 28) was 69.3 +/- 36.9 fmol/ml plasma (mean +/- SD, n=27). The highest concentration measured in obese was 533.3 fmol/ml plasma. The levels showed a strong positive correlation with BMI (r=0.77, p<0.001). A subgroup of diabetic patients did not significantly differ in their leptin plasma levels from non-diabetic subjects with similar BMI.