Familial aggregation of insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) is a common phenomenon, but the reasons behind it are poorly understood. To investigate whether there is heterogeneity between familial and nonfamilial forms of IDDM we compared genetic, immunological, and clinical characteristics of diabetic children with and without an affected first-degree relative in a population-based series of Finnish children with IDDM. The frequencies of HLA-DQB1 genotypes known to be associated with high (DQB1*0302/0201) or moderate (*0302/x) IDDM risk in the Finnish population were increased, while the proportions of DQB1 genotypes associated with low or decreased risk for IDDM were reduced in the 121 familial cases as compared with the 574 nonfamilial cases (32.7 vs. 21.3%, 41.3 vs. 35.9%, 18.3 vs. 31.4%, and 7.7 vs. 11.4%, respectively; P = 0.002). The frequencies and serum concentrations of islet cell antibodies, insulin autoantibodies, and antibodies to the 65-kD isoform of glutamic acid decarboxylase were similar at diagnosis in the familial and nonfamilial cases. The 31 first-affected cases in the multiple case families were younger at diagnosis than the nonfamilial cases (6.9 vs. 8.5 yr; P < 0.05). The 90 second-affected familial cases had less severe metabolic decompensation at diagnosis than either the first-affected familial or nonfamilial cases. In conclusion, familial aggregation of IDDM in Finland is at least partly explained by a higher frequency of IDDM susceptibility genes in families with multiple affected individuals. The lack of differences in autoantibody levels between the familial and nonfamilial cases indicates homogeneity rather than heterogeneity in the pathogenetic process of beta cell destruction.