Factor H, a 150-kD protein, is an important down-regulating protein of the alternative pathway of the complement system. Presently, only 15 persons, representing seven families, have been described with homozygous factor H deficiency. Deficiency of this protein, inherited as an autosomal recessive trait and resulting in uncontrolled breakdown of C3, results in depletion of components of the alternative pathway (factor B, properdin) and of the terminal pathway (C5), and is associated with the onset of bacterial infections, glomerulonephritis and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). The proband of the family in this study suffered from subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus and had had meningococcal meningitis due to serogroup X. She had a complete factor H deficiency at the protein level as determined by Western blotting. Among 21 relatives of the proband studied, encompassing three generations, 10 had low factor H levels, including the two children of the proband, indicating a heterozygous factor H deficiency state. In serum samples of the proband and 11 relatives prospectively studied, a strong correlation of factor H levels with C3, C3 haemolytic activity, factor B and properdin levels (P < 0.0001) was found. Alternative pathway protein levels were significantly lower (Mann-Whitney test; Z values 3.6-2.7) in sera from the four heterozygous relatives studied than in sera from the seven non-deficient relatives. In addition, a defect of the 37/42-kD H-related protein was found in the proband and two of 21 relatives, compared with four of 40 controls. A defect of the 24/29-kD H-related protein was present in one of 21 relatives studied and in none of the 40 controls.