Active SLE is characterized by immune deposits and subsequent vascular inflammation in many organs. Expression and up-regulation of adhesion molecules is basic to migration of inflammatory cells into the tissues. Recently, soluble isoforms of these molecules have been described which might be an expression of their up-regulation in the tissues and, as such, of disease activity. The purpose of this study was to evaluate whether changes in levels of soluble adhesion molecules reflect disease activity. We analysed serial sera in a 6-month period preceding 22 consecutive exacerbations of SLE for levels of soluble vascular cell adhesion molecule-l (sVCAM-1). soluble intercellular adhesion molecule-l (slCAM-1), and sE-selectin. Levels were related to clinical disease activity (SLEDAI). and levels of anti-dsDNA and complement. At the time of maximal disease activity, levels of sVCAM-1 in patients with SLE were higher than those in controls (P < 0.0001), levels in patients with renal involvement being higher than in those without (P < 0.02). Levels of sVCAM-1 correlated with SLEDAI scores (P < 005) and, inversely, with levels of C3 (P = 0.01). In addition, in the presence of anti-dsDNA, levels of sVCAM-1 tended to correlate with levels of these autoantibodies (P < 0.1). Levels of sICAM-1 were normal and sE-selectin levels even decreased compared with controls. Levels of sVCAM-l were higher at the moment of relapse (P = 0.001) than at 6 months before this time point. This rise correlated with the rise in SLEDAI score (P < 0.02). Levels of sICAM-l and sE-selectin did not rise, and remained in the normal range in all exacerbations studied. In conclusion, in contrast to sICAM-1 and sE-selectin, levels of sVCAM-l are increased, rise parallel to disease activity during exacerbations in SLE, and are associated with decreasing levels of complement factors. This favours the hypothesis of immune deposit formation, activation of the complement cascade and activation of endothelial cells. Concurrent up-regulation of vascular adhesion molecules may thus result in transmigration of activated inflammatory cells inducing tissue damage.