Peripheral blood lymphocytes from patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), progressive systemic sclerosis (PSS), Reiter's disease, osteoarthritis, and from healthy volunteers were investigated for interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) production after mitogen activation. Phytohaemagglutinin stimulation revealed an impaired IFN-gamma production in RA, SLE, and PSS but normal levels in Reiter's disease and osteoarthritis. In RA this deficiency was also seen after pokeweed mitogen, OKT3, and concanavalin A activation. No major differences were found in interleukin 2 (IL-2) production and cell proliferation. The IL-2 receptor expression was reduced on stimulated RA lymphocytes. The deficient IFN-gamma production was compensated in RA by co-stimulation of PHA or OKT3 with phorbol myristic acetate (PMA). In addition, the combination of the calcium ionophore A 23187 and PMA induced a strong IFN-gamma secretion in all patient groups and in the controls.