Von Willebrand factor (vWF) is the largest protein found in plasma. It circulates in blood as a series of multimers ranging in size from 500 to 20,000 kDa. The variable molecular weight of vWF is due to differences in the number of subunits comprising the protein. vWF mediates platelet adhesion to subendothelium of the damaged blood vessel. Only the largest multimers are hemostatically active. Each vWF subunit contains binding sites for collagen and for platelet glycoproteins GPIb and GPIIb/IIIa. Multiple interactions of repeating binding sites in vWF multimers with adhesive protein(s) of the subendothelium and with receptors on the platelet surface lead to "irreversible" binding of platelets to the exposed subendothelium. Functional properties of vWF are typical of multisubunit proteins encoded by autosomal loci. The phenotype of von Willebrand disease is determined by the properties of the dysfunctional subunits which become incorporated into heteropolymeric forms of vWF. Absence of large vWF multimers, seen in type 2A von Willebrand disease and in myeloproliferative disorders, is associated with bleeding tendency. On the other hand, in patients with vWF multimers of supranormal size, as they occur in thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP) and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), there is an increased risk of thrombosis. Proteolytic enzyme(s) are involved in physiologic regulation of the polymeric size of vWF. We have purified from human plasma a protease cleaving vWF at the same peptide bond that is also cleaved in vivo. vWF was quite resistant against the protease in a physiologic buffer but was degraded at low salt concentration or in the presence of 1 M urea. It appears that a conformational change in the vWF molecule exposes the specific protease-sensitive peptide bond and thus enhances degradation of vWF multimers. In some variants of type 2A vWF, the cleavage site in the vWF subunit is more susceptible to proteolytic degradation than in normal vWF, whereas in patients with TTP or HUS the protease activity may be suppressed. vWF-degrading protease plays an important role in pathogenesis of congenital or acquired disorders of hemostasis and thrombosis.