Complement is part of the innate immune system. Its major function is recognition and elimination of pathogens via direct killing and/or stimulation of phagocytosis. Activation of the complement system is, however, also involved in the pathogenesis of the systemic autoimmune diseases. Activation via the classical pathway has long been recognized in immune complex-mediated diseases such as cryoglobulinemic vasculitis and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). In SLE, the role of complement is somewhat paradoxical. It is involved in autoantibody-initiated tissue damage on the one hand, but, on the other hand, it appears to have protective features as hereditary deficiencies of classical pathway components are associated with an increased risk for SLE. There is increasing evidence that the alternative pathway of complement, even more than the classical pathway, is involved in many systemic autoimmune diseases. This is true for IgA-dominant Henoch Schönlein Purpura, in which additional activation of the lectin pathway contributes to more severe disease. In anti-neutrophil cytoplasmic antibody (ANCA)-associated vasculitis the complement system was considered not to be involved since immunoglobulin deposition is generally absent in the lesions. However, recent studies, both in human and animal models, demonstrated complement activation via the alternative pathway as a major pathogenic mechanism. Insight into the role of the various pathways of complement in the systemic autoimmune diseases including the vasculitides opens up new ways of treatment by blocking effector pathways of complement. This has been demonstrated for monoclonal antibodies to C5 or C5a in experimental anti-phospholipid antibody syndrome and ANCA-associated vasculitis.
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