The human adult intestinal epithelium has traditionally been described as nonpermeable to proteins. However, indirect evidence suggests that reduced absorption of undegraded proteins might take place under physiological conditions. Using bromelain (an enzyme obtained from pineapple stems) as a model protein, we studied the extent of this mucosal permeation in 19 healthy men. The protein was detected in plasma by immunoassay and by its proteolytic activity after oral administration. The estimated plasma half-life was 6-9 h. After oral multidosing (3 g/day), plasma concentration reached as much as 5,000 pg/ml by 48 h. From the plasma concentration curve, it could be estimated that an average of 10.8 micrograms of bromelain was present in plasma in the 3- to 51-h period. The presence of undegraded bromelain in plasma was shown unequivocally by immunoprecipitation of plasma samples with antibromelain antibodies, followed by gel electrophoresis and immunodetection. Moreover, the enzyme retained its biological activity, at least in part. Circulating bromelain was found associated with alpha 2-macroglobulin and alpha 1-antichymotrypain. The results of this work confirm the existence of a small but significant intestinal transport of undegraded proteins in healthy men.