C4 plays a central role in the activation of the classical pathway of the complement system. It is processed by activated C1 which removes from the alpha chain the C4a anaphylatoxin. The remaining alpha chain fragment C4b is the major activation product and is an essential subunit of the C3 convertase (C4b2a) and the C5 convertase (C3bC4b2a) enzymes of the classical complement pathway. Derived from proteolytic degradation of complement C4, C4a anaphylatoxin is a mediator of local inflammatory process. It induces the contraction of smooth muscle, increases vascular permeability and causes histamine release from mast cells and basophilic leukocytes.
Prior to secretion, the single-chain precursor is enzymatically cleaved to yield the non-identical chains (alpha, beta and gamma). During activation, the alpha chain is cleaved by C1 into C4a and C4b, and C4b stays linked to the beta and gamma chains. Further degradation of C4b by C1 into the inactive fragments C4c and C4d blocks the generation of C3 convertase.