The mechanism of hypertension induced by recombinant human erythropoietin (rHuEPO) is unclear but may include an increase in peripheral vascular resistance. We studied changes of arterial pressure and plasma endothelin in nine consecutive hemodialysis patients before, and 6 and 12 weeks after, starting rHuEPO. In six patients, changes in cardiac index (CI), stroke index (SI) and total peripheral resistance index (TPRI) were measured by bioimpedance, and forearm vascular responsiveness to intra-arterial norepinephrine (30 to 240 pmol/min) and endothelin-1 (5 pmol/min) were assessed. Six healthy age and sex matched subjects also underwent assessment of forearm vascular responsiveness to norepinephrine and endothelin-1. Treatment with rHuEPO significantly increased hemoglobin and mean arterial pressure (MAP). TPRI also increased by 35 +/- 11%. Plasma endothelin, although elevated basally, remained unchanged. Intra-arterial infusion of norepinephrine caused a maximal increase in forearm vascular resistance (FVR) of 17 +/- 9% before rHuEPO, significantly less than the 32 +/- 5% increase in healthy control subjects (P = 0.04). The response increased to 65 +/- 15% (P = 0.03) after 12 weeks rHuEPO treatment (P = 0.51 vs. controls). Endothelin-1 caused a maximal increase of FVR at 60 minutes of 45 +/- 24% before rHuEPO, which was not significantly different from controls, and tended to decrease with rHuEPO therapy. The response to endothelin-1, but not norepinephrine, correlated inversely with MAP (r = -0.52; P = 0.03) and TPRI (r = -0.51; P = 0.04). In conclusion, these studies show that anemia in chronic renal failure is associated with depressed vascular responsiveness to norepinephrine which is restored by rHuEPO therapy.