It remains unclear how and why autoimmunity occurs. Here we show evidence for a previously unrecognized and possibly general mechanism of autoimmunity. This new finding was discovered serendipitously using material from patients with inflammatory vascular disease caused by antineutrophil cytoplasmic autoantibodies (ANCA) with specificity for proteinase-3 (PR-3). Such patients harbor not only antibodies to the autoantigen (PR-3), but also antibodies to a peptide translated from the antisense DNA strand of PR-3 (complementary PR-3, cPR-3) or to a mimic of this peptide. Immunization of mice with the middle region of cPR-3 resulted in production of antibodies not only to cPR-3, but also to the immunogen's sense peptide counterpart, PR-3. Both human and mouse antibodies to PR-3 and cPR-3 bound to each other, indicating idiotypic relationships. These findings indicate that autoimmunity can be initiated through an immune response against a peptide that is antisense or complementary to the autoantigen, which then induces anti-idiotypic antibodies (autoantibodies) that cross-react with the autoantigen.