To determine whether there is an intrinsic defect in T cells from patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), we studied signal transduction systems, assaying the total protein kinase C (PKC) levels and the phorbol myristate acetate (PMA)-induced activation of PKC in PHA-treated T cells. T cells from SLE patients showed a decrease in proliferation in response to PMA, but not to PHA, thereby suggesting the existence of an intrinsic abnormality in the PKC-mediated activation pathway. Total PKC activity in the T cells from SLE patients was significantly decreased. Although stimulation with PMA induced a translocation of PKC from the cytosol to the particulate fraction, translocated PKC activity after 2 nM PMA treatment was decreased in the SLE T cells. Furthermore, PMA-induced phosphorylation of 80-kDa substrates was also decreased in SLE T cells. These results suggest that there is a reduced PKC activity and an impaired PKC activation in response to PMA in the SLE T cells, a finding which may explain, if partially, the defect in T cell activation in patients with SLE.