Activation of the contact system has been documented in severe sepsis and hereditary angioedema, but a sensitive, specific, and quantitative assay for assessing the degree of involvement of this proteolytic enzyme cascade is not yet available. We have developed a quantitative sandwich enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) for the alpha 2-macroglobulin-kallikrein (alpha 2M-Kal) complex using an F(ab’)2 derivative of a monospecific polyclonal antibody against alpha 2 M as the capture antibody and a unique murine monoclonal antibody, 13G11, against the heavy chain of kallikrein as the detector antibody. The assay does not detect complexes in normal plasma but reacts with complexes generated by activating normal plasma with dextran sulfate at 4 degrees C in a range of 5 to 375 nmol/L. A close correlation of the ELISA with an amidolytic assay for alpha 2M-Kal was documented. Patients with sepsis syndrome but negative bacterial blood cultures did not show elevated plasma complexes, whereas a majority of those with positive blood cultures did show modest elevation and a single patient with septic shock showed a very high level of alpha 2M-Kal complex. Similarly, a patient with classic hereditary angioedema (HAE) showed increased concentration of complexes on three separate occasions during attacks but normal levels between attacks. Two other HAE patients did not show elevated levels at quiescent periods. The ELISA for alpha 2M-Kal appears to be sensitive, specific, and quantitative, and it can be used to reflect the degree of contact system activation in human sepsis and in HAE attacks.