The peripheral blood lymphocyte pattern, the lymphocyte responses in vitro, as well as the soluble markers of immune activation were studied in 24 patients with systemic sclerosis (SSc patients). The proportions of total T cells (CD3), their CD4 subset, as well as B lymphocytes were within the normal range. The relative proportion of CD8 lymphocytes, however, was significantly reduced. Patients with SSc had a slightly lower percentage of CD4/4B4+ cells, whereas their proportion of CD4/2H4+ cells was elevated as compared to healthy controls. The proportion of lymphocytes expressing the interleukin-2 receptor (IL-2R) was significantly higher in SSc patients. The proliferative responses of peripheral blood mononuclear cells to PHA stimulation were reduced in the patient group, while expression of IL-2R on lymphocytes after such in vitro stimulation was comparable to that of controls. Expression of IL-2R on patient but not control lymphocytes was increased after in vitro exposure to laminin. Such exposure failed to induce IL-2 production or cell proliferative responses. Soluble plasma IL-2R level (sIL-2R) and soluble CD8 (sCD8) molecule levels in SSc patients were significantly elevated. These results indicate the presence of an ongoing lymphocyte activation in this disease process.