We found that the plasma of patients with active systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) could induce a human B-cell line (Ramos) to express high levels of immune accessory molecules that are commonly found on blood B cells of patients with active SLE. The ability of SLE plasma to induce such phenotypic changes could be abrogated by neutralizing antibodies specific for the CD40 ligand (CD154) but not by antibodies to TNF-alpha. Immunoprecipitation studies with anti-CD154 identified a 20-kDa protein in the plasma of SLE patients with active disease, but not in plasma of normal donors, indicating that such plasma contained soluble CD154 (sCD154). Using a quantitative ELISA method, we found that the plasma of patients with active disease had levels of sCD154 that were significantly higher than those found in plasma of normal donors. Levels of CD154 transcripts in SLE blood lymphocytes correlated with the relative concentrations of sCD154 found in SLE plasma. Furthermore, plasma levels of sCD154 correlated with the titers of anti-double-stranded DNA autoantibody and with clinical disease activity. These studies indicate that sCD154 of patients with SLE may act as a functional ligand for CD40 that is associated with SLE disease activity.