Elevated serum lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) is a characteristic finding in patients with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP). It is widely accepted that total serum LDH principally rises due to the release of red blood cell LDH as a consequence of intravascular hemolysis. To identify the cellular source of serum LDH in TTP, we prospectively analyzed total serum LDH and LDH isoenzyme profiles in 10 consecutive patients with classic, acute idiopathic TTP within 5 days of clinical presentation. Total LDH was quantitated on a Hitachi 911 Analyzer (Indianapolis, IN), using the lactate to pyruvate reaction. LDH isoenzymes were measured by serum protein electrophoresis, using the Beckman LDH Isoenzyme Kit (Anaheim, CA). Isoenzymes attributable to erythrocytes (LDH1, LDH2) were not disproportionately elevated in 9 of 10 patients. LDH3 was below or within normal limits for all 10 patients, and one patient showed a slightly increased LDH4. Serum LDH5, the isoenzyme derived primarily from liver and skeletal muscle, was elevated 1-2 times normal in all patients. Evidence supporting hemolysis as the major contribution to the elevated total serum LDH frequently encountered in acute TTP was not identified in this study. The isoenzyme fractions LDH and LDH2 elevated by erythrocyte injury were not disproportionately elevated in this series. LDH 5, the isoenzyme found in skeletal muscle and liver, was consistently 1- to 2-fold greater than normal in all patients. We propose that the elevation of serum LDH seen in patients with TTP is due to release of LDH from a variety of tissues damaged as a result of systemic ischemia.