A method has been developed to determine true plasma transforming growth factor beta (TGF-beta) levels by using the platelet alpha granule-specific marker, platelet factor 4, to correct for the TGF-beta contributed by platelets degranulated ex vivo. TGF-beta levels were measured on acid-ethanol extracts of human plasma using isoform-specific sandwich enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays. Normal human subjects had 4.1 +/- 2.0 ng/ml TGF-beta1 (range, 2.0-12.0; n = 42), <0.2 ng/ml TGF-beta2, and <0.1 ng/ml TGF-beta3 in their plasma. There were no significant changes with age or with hormonal status, but any given individual showed fluctuations of up to 3-fold in measured plasma TGF-beta levels due to unknown factors. Of 28 patients with advanced metastatic breast cancer, 2 had greatly elevated TGF-beta1 levels, while the rest were in the normal range. The presence of physiologically significant levels of TGF-beta1 in the plasmas of normal human subjects may indicate previously unsuspected endocrine roles for this peptide, while TGF-beta2 and TGF-beta3 appear to act only in a local autocrine/paracrine fashion.