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Hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) is thought to be a vascular endothelial injury disease. The mechanism of injury is unknown although verocytotoxins (Shiga-like toxins (SLTs)) are known to be associated with it. Recent evidence suggests that in vitro treatment of some endothelial cells with tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) dramatically increases their susceptibility to SLTs. We studied 25 children with HUS, 63 children with SLT-positive bloody diarrhea, 62 children with bloody diarrhea not associated with SLTs and 39 children admitted for elective surgery, included as an age- and season-matched control group. The TNF-alpha concentrations were found to be significantly elevated in children with HUS (range, 1 to 95 pg/ml; geometric mean, 32.2 pg/ml) compared with the healthy controls (range, 0 to 53 pg/ml; mean, 12.5 pg/ml; P < 0.001). Because it is hypothesized that TNF-alpha elevation might precede development of HUS, we also studied children with bloody diarrhea. The TNF-alpha serum concentrations were significantly higher during the first 10 days after onset of bloody diarrhea than after the first 10 days (P < 0.02). Such elevation could be associated with vascular endothelial glycolipid receptor up-regulation and increased susceptibility to the effects of SLTs.