Objective: To determine whether increased levels of the complement split products generated in the activation of the alternative or classical pathway accompany more severe disease activity in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and whether these measurements are useful in predicting flares of disease.
Methods: Levels of Ba, Bb, SC5b-9, and C4d were measured in 380 plasma samples obtained from 86 SLE patients who were prospectively followed up for 15 months.
Results: In the 20 patients who had inactive disease at the initiation of the study, the mean values of all of the complement split products at entry were within the normal range. In the 47 patients with stable or moderate disease activity, levels of Ba were significantly increased, while the mean values for Bb, SC5b-9, and C4d did not differ significantly from those in patients with inactive disease. The mean entry value of each analyte was highest in the group of 19 patients who had the most severe disease activity at initial evaluation. Traditional measurements of complement, i.e., C3, C4, and CH50, followed similar trends, but did not discriminate between the 3 groups of patients as well as did measurements of the split products. Analysis of the disease course in the patients with inactive or stable/moderate disease revealed that an elevated level of C4d had the most sensitivity with regard to subsequent flare, while an elevated Bb level had the highest specificity and the greatest predictive value.
Conclusion: These data suggest that elevated levels of complement split products, particularly products of alternative and terminal pathway activation, more accurately reflect disease activity than do conventional measurements of complement in SLE and may be useful in the prediction of impending disease flares.