This study was designed to determine if, and to what extent, antithrombin III (AT) levels affect the response of the activated clotting time (ACT) to heparin in concentrations used during cardiac surgery, and to characterize the relationship between AT levels and markers of activation of coagulation during cardiopulmonary bypass (CPB). After informed consent, blood specimens obtained from eight normal volunteers (Phase I) were used to measure the response of the kaolin and celite ACT to heparin after in vitro addition of AT (200 U/dL) and after dilution with AT-deficient plasma to yield AT concentrations of 20, 40, 60, 80, and 100 U/dL. In Phase II, blood specimens collected before the administration of heparin and prior to discontinuation of CPB, were used to measure the response of the kaolin ACT to heparin (preheparin only), AT concentration, and a battery of coagulation assays in 31 patients undergoing repeat or combined cardiac surgical procedures. In Phase I, strong linear relationships were observed between kaolin (slope = 1.04 AT - 2, r2 = 0.78) and celite (slope = 1.36 AT + 6, r2 = 0.77) ACT slopes and AT concentrations below 100 U/dL. In the pre-CPB period of Phase II, only factors V (partial r = -0.49) and VIII (partial r = -0.63) were independently associated with heparin-derived slope using multivariate analysis; an inverse relationship was observed between AT and fibrinopeptide A levels (r = -0.41) at the end of CPB. Our findings indicate that the responsiveness of whole blood (ACT) to heparin at the high concentrations used with CPB is progressively reduced when the AT concentration decreases below 80 U/dL. Because AT is variably, and sometimes extensively, reduced in many patients before and during CPB, AT supplementation in these patients might be useful in reducing excessive thrombin-mediated consumption of labile hemostatic blood components, excessive microvascular bleeding, and transfusion of blood products. Implications: Heparin, a drug with anticoagulant properties, is routinely given to patients undergoing cardiac surgery to prevent clot formation within the cardiopulmonary bypass circuit. However, when levels are reduced, heparin is not as effective. Findings within this study indicate that administration of antithrombin III may help to preserve the hemostatic system during cardiopulmonary bypass.