Thrombospondin-1 (TSP1) has potent biological effects on vasculature smooth muscle cells (SMCs) and endothelial cells. The regulation of extracellular accumulation of TSP1 is mediated by a previously obscure process of endocytosis which leads to its lysosomal degradation. Since members of the low density lipoprotein receptor (LDLR) family have been found to mediate endocytosis which leads to degradation of a diverse array of ligands, we evaluated their possible role in the uptake and degradation of TSP1 by vascular SMCs, endothelial cells and fibroblasts. 125I-TSP1 was found to be internalized and degraded lysosomally by all these cell types. Both the internalization and degradation of 125I-TSP1 could be inhibited by a specific antagonist of the LDLR family, the 39-kD receptor-associated protein (RAP). Antibodies to the LDLR-related protein (LRP) completely blocked the uptake and degradation of 125I-TSP1 in SMCs and fibroblasts but not endothelial cells. Solid-phase binding assays confirmed that LRP bound to TSP1 and that the interaction was of high affinity (K(d) = 5 nM). Neither RAP nor LRP antibodies inhibited the binding of 125I-TSP1 to surfaces of SMCs. However, cell surface binding, as well as, endocytosis and degradation could be blocked by heparin or by pre-treatment of the cells with either heparitinase, chondroitinase or β-D-xyloside. The data indicates that cell surface proteoglycans are involved in the LRP-mediated clearance of TSP1. A model for the clearance of TSP1 by these cells is that TSP1 bound to proteoglycans is presented to LRP for endocytosis. In endothelial cells, however, the internalization of TSP1 was not mediated by LRP but since RAP inhibited TSP1 uptake and degradation, we postulate that another member of the LDLR family is likely to be involved.