Sera from 61 patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) were serially screened over a period of at least 2 years for IFN and anti-IFN antibodies. IFN concentrations were measured both with a cytopathic effect assay and a more sensitive radioimmunoassay. Of the patients 15% (9/61) had IFN in their serum at one or more occasions as measured in the bioassay (greater than or equal to 6 IU/ml); employing a RIA (greater than or equal to 1 IU/ml) 28% (17/61) of the patients studied were positive for IFN-alpha. Fifteen patients had a measurable interferonemia over 2-16 months; only two patients had detectable IFN in their serum at only one occasion. In five patients, hourly and daily variations of the IFN titer as measured by RIA were found to amount to less than 80%. The IFN activity found in these sera was characterized as IFN-alpha by means of acid stability, cross-reactivity on heterologous cells, trypsin sensitivity, and neutralization by homologous and heterologous antisera. IFN antibodies were quantified with a neutralization bioassay, an ELISA, and a radioimmunoassay. Of the 61 patients 5% (3) possessed high titers of anti-IFN antibodies which persisted over 2 years. The IFN-alpha antibody positive patients had an inactive form of the disease over years without visceral involvement but decreased serum complement levels (C4, C3, CH50) and repeated episodes of Quincke-like edema.