Elevated level of cellular lipid peroxidation can increase the incidence of vascular disease. The mechanism by which ketosis causes accelerated cellular damage and vascular disease in diabetes is not known. This study was undertaken to test the hypothesis that elevated levels of ketone bodies increase lipid peroxidation in endothelial cells. Human umbilical venous endothelial cells (HUVEC) were cultured for 24 h at 37 degrees C with ketone bodies (acetoacetate, beta-hydroxybutyrate). Acetoacetate, but not beta-hydroxybutyrate, caused an increase in lipid peroxidation and growth inhibition in cultured HUVEC. To determine whether ketone bodies generate oxygen radicals, studies using cell-free buffered solution were performed. They showed a significant superoxide dismutase (SOD) inhibitable reduction of cytochrome C by acetoacetate, but not by beta-hydroxybutyrate, suggesting the generation of superoxide anion radicals by acetoacetate. Additional studies show that Fe2+ potentiates oxygen radical generation by acetoacetate. Thus, elevated levels of ketone body acetoacetate can generate oxygen radicals and cause lipid peroxidation in endothelial cells, providing a possible mechanism for the increased incidence of vascular disease in diabetes.