Reference distributions for complement proteins C3 and C4: a practical, simple and clinically relevant approach in a large cohort

J Clin Lab Anal. 2004;18(1):1-8. doi: 10.1002/jcla.10100.


The two serum proteins of the complement cascade in the highest concentrations, C3 and C4, respond to various conditions in much the same manner as do other positive acute-phase proteins. A major difference is that they are relatively sluggish in response to cytokine drive, requiring several days rather than hours to be detectably elevated by serial measurements. As with other acute-phase proteins, there are many processes that up- or down-regulate synthesis, including infection or inflammation, hepatic failure, and immune-complex formation. Clinicians may find it difficult to distinguish among these processes, because they often occur simultaneously. The situation is further complicated by genetic polymorphism, with rare instances of markedly reduced synthesis and circulating levels, and consequent vulnerability to infection. C3 and C4 are measured for clinical purposes to help define certain rheumatic and immunologically mediated renal diseases. Interpreting the measured blood levels of these two components requires one to consider the intensity of the inflammatory drive, the timing of the suspected clinical process, the production of complement-consuming immune complexes, and the possible existence of benign circumstances. In this fifth article in a series, reference ranges for serum levels of two complement proteins (C3 and C4) are examined. The study is based on a cohort of over 55,000 Caucasian individuals from northern New England, who were tested in our laboratory in 1994-1999. Measurements were standardized against certified reference material (CRM) 470/reference preparation for proteins in human serum (RPPHS), and analyzed using a previously described statistical approach. Individuals with unequivocal laboratory evidence of inflammation (C-reactive protein of 10 mg/L or higher) were excluded. Our results show that the levels of C3 and C4 change little during life and between the sexes, except that they increase slightly and then fall after age 20 in males and at about age 45 in females. When values were expressed as multiples of the age- and gender-specific median levels, the resulting distributions fitted a log-Gaussian distribution well over a broad range. When patient data are normalized in this manner, the distribution parameters can be used to assign a centile corresponding to an individual's measurement, thus simplifying interpretation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acute-Phase Proteins / analysis
  • Acute-Phase Proteins / metabolism*
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Chemistry, Clinical / standards*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cohort Studies
  • Complement C3 / analysis
  • Complement C3 / metabolism*
  • Complement C4 / analysis
  • Complement C4 / metabolism*
  • European Continental Ancestry Group
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Reference Values
  • Sex Factors


  • Acute-Phase Proteins
  • Complement C3
  • Complement C4