BACKGROUND: The pathogenesis of hyperhomocysteinemia in end-stage renal disease (ESRD) is unclear. Folic acid lowers, but does not normalize, the plasma homocysteine level in patients with ESRD, but its effect on whole body metabolism of homocysteine is unknown. METHODS: We studied the effect of 3 weeks of oral treatment with 5 mg folic acid per day on homocysteine metabolism in six chronic hemodialysis patients and six healthy controls. Primed, continuous infusions with [(2)H(3)-methyl-1-(13)C] methionine were used to determine flux rates of methionine transmethylation, homocysteine remethylation, and homocysteine transsulfuration. Metabolic homocysteine clearance was defined as the ratio of transsulfuration and plasma homocysteine level. RESULTS: Folic acid treatment lowered plasma homocysteine significantly by 39% (95% CI 5 to 73) in the ESRD group, but plasma homocysteine remained higher than baseline values in the control group. In ESRD patients, homocysteine remethylation and methionine transmethylation rate increased by 34% (95% CI 5 to 62) and 22% (95% CI 5 to 39), respectively (i.e., levels that were similar to the baseline values of the control group). Transsulfuration rate and metabolic homocysteine clearance were not significantly altered by folic acid treatment in both the ESRD and the control group. CONCLUSION: In ESRD patients, folic acid treatment lowers, but does not normalize plasma homocysteine, whereas homocysteine remethylation and methionine transmethylation increase to levels found in untreated healthy controls. These findings indicate a persistent, folate-independent, defect in metabolic homocysteine clearance in ESRD.