Protein C is a vitamin K-dependent regulator of blood coagulation. Activated protein C is regulated in plasma in large part by two inhibitors, protein C inhibitor and alpha 1-antitrypsin. Complexes of activated protein C with both inhibitors in plasma samples from subjects with normal or pathologic pregnancy were measured. In normal pregnancy we observed a progressive and significant increase in activated protein C/alpha 1-antitrypsin complex levels, from 9 +/- 3 ng/ml in the first trimester to 16 +/- 3 ng/ml in the third trimester, as well as an increase in alpha 1-antitrypsin plasma levels. In severe preeclampsia, but not in chronic hypertension with superimposed severe preeclampsia, there was a greater increase in activated protein C/alpha 1-antitrypsin levels (25 +/- 10 ng/ml) (p less than 0.001) and a decrease in protein C and protein C inhibitor levels as compared with normal pregnant women at similar gestational ages. These data show an increase in the activation of the protein C pathway in both normal and pathologic pregnancy and provide evidence for an enhancement of thrombin generation in severe preeclampsia compared with chronic hypertension with superimposed severe preeclampsia.