Serum levels of soluble CD44 variant proteins including sequences encoded by exon v5 and exon v6 (sCD44v5, sCD44v6) were determined in patients with inflammatory rheumatic diseases: 56 with rheumatoid arthritis (RA+) and 31 with miscellaneous inflammatory rheumatic diseases (MIRD). There were very significantly higher serum levels of sCD44v5 and sCD44v6 in patients with RA+ than in those with MIRD (RA+ to MIRD: sCD44v5: 81 +/- 54 ng/ml to 33 +/- 13 ng/ml; sCD44v6: 237 +/- 124 ng/ml to 166 +/- 53 ng/ml; both P << 0.001). In RA+ elevated serum levels of sCD44v5 were correlated with the inflammatory activity of disease. In 17 patients with RA+ three or four follow-up measurements of sCD44v5 were performed within 6 months. The development of sCD44v5 serum levels reflected the clinical course of disease in the patients investigated.