Complement activation patterns were determined in a group of 51 patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and the clinical outcomes of these patients at 2 years were correlated with the complement activation patterns. Activation of the classical pathway was monitored by analysis of C4a desArg levels and total C4 levels, and activation of the alternative pathway was monitored by isoelectric focusing/immunofixation and quantitative analyses of Factor B. Activation of C3 (a general measure of complement activation) was determined by an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay for C3d and by quantitative analysis of C3. Patients were stratified into 3 groups: those with C4 but not C3 activation; those with C4 and C3 but not Factor B activation; and those with C4, C3, and Factor B activation. At the end of 2 years, there was a statistically significant difference in the morbidity and mortality rates of the third group of SLE patients compared with those in the other 2 groups. There was also a statistically significant association between the presence of Ba and cutaneous vasculitis. Unlike the patterns seen with in vitro-activated serum or with membrane-activated plasma, the Bb activation fragment was not present in the activated plasma samples from the SLE patients. These data suggest that activation of the alternative complement pathway may be a marker for severe SLE and that the Bb fragment may be playing a role in the development of this more serious pathologic condition.