In systemic small vessel vasculitides, patients form autoantibodies against neutrophil granular proteins, anti-neutrophilic cytoplasmic autoantibodies (ANCA). Some correlation is seen between ANCA titre and disease activity, but whether this is cause or effect is still unknown. It has been reported that levels of proteinase 3 (PR3), one of the main ANCA antigens, are increased in patients with active disease. An increased level of circulating antigen could mean a predisposition to autoimmunity. In order to explore this we measured PR3 levels in patients with stable disease. In addition we measured neutrophil gelatinase-associated lipocalin (NGAL) as a specific marker of neutrophil degranulation, cystatin C as a marker of renal function as well as C-reactive protein (CRP), IL-6 and sTNFr1 as markers of inflammation. PR3, NGAL, IL-6 and sTNFr1 were measured in plasma by the ELISA technique. In the PR3 ELISA, we used anti-PR3 monoclonal antibodies as capture-antibodies and affinity-purified rabbit-anti-PR3 antibodies for detection. PR3-ANCA, myeloperoxidase (MPO)-ANCA, CRP and cystatin C were measured by routine methods. PR3 was significantly raised (P < 0.0001) in vasculitis patients (median 560 micro g/l, range 110-3,940, n = 59) compared with healthy blood donors (350 micro g/l, 110-580, n = 30) as well as disease controls (360, 110-580, n = 46). No correlation was seen with disease activity, inflammation or renal function. The raised NGAL levels correlated strongly with decreased renal function (r = 0.8, P < 0.001). After correcting for this, slightly increased levels (110, 42-340, n = 59) were observed compared with healthy blood donors (81, 38-130, n = 25), but not compared with the disease controls (120, 57-260, n = 48). In the disease controls, there was a significant correlation between NGAL and proteinase 3 (r = 0.3, p < 0.05), but this was not the case in the vasculitis patients. Whether patients had PR3-ANCA or MPO-ANCA was of no significance. In our measurements, we found significantly raised levels of PR3 in plasma from patients with small vessel vasculitis, regardless of ANCA specificity. This was not due to decreased renal function, ongoing inflammation or neutrophil activation. Plausible mechanisms for this include defects in the reticuloendothelial system, genetic factors and selective neutrophil degranulation or leakage.