The factors that determine a patient's susceptibility to specific target organ involvement in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) remain unknown. Lupus nephritis can be a particularly devastating complication, with an increased mortality and the risk of progressive renal damage resulting in end-stage renal disease (ESRD). This analysis was performed to determine whether renal disease aggregated in select families or was a sporadic complication in patients with SLE. We compared the family history of ESRD in 50 patients with SLE complicated by lupus nephritis with 37 controls who had SLE but lacked nephritis after a mean follow-up duration of more than 11 years. The frequency of relatives with ESRD in the lupus nephritis cases was compared with that in controls using Fisher's exact test (significance at P < or = 0.05). Fifty percent (25) of the 50 lupus nephritis patients were black and 50% (25) white, in contrast to 35% (13) and 65% (24) of the 37 lupus non-nephropathy controls, respectively. A first-, second-, or third-degree relative with ESRD was present in 16% (eight) of the 50 lupus nephritis cases and in 0% of the 37 SLE non-nephropathy controls (P = 0.019, Fisher's exact test, two-tail). Twenty-eight percent (seven) of the 25 black patients with lupus nephritis had relatives with ESRD compared with 0% of the 13 black lupus non-nephritis controls (P = 0.07). Only one of the eight relatives with ESRD had SLE or a collagen vascular disease. Lupus nephritis patients and the non-nephritis controls had similar ages (mean +/- SD: 38.5 +/- 10.0 years v 46.6 +/- 11.8 years; P = 0.28), family sizes (6.27 +/- 2.61 first-degree relatives v 6.35 +/- 3.25 first-degree relatives; P = 0.16), and duration of SLE (9.26 +/- 5.94 years v 11.35 +/- 6.43 years; P = 0.60). Familial clustering of ESRD was observed in black patients with SLE who had nephritis. This was unlikely to be related to differences in patient age, family size, or duration of SLE. This data, coupled with the known familial aggregation of ESRD in blacks with hypertensive and diabetic ESRD, supports the contention that genetic factors contribute to the familial clustering. The presence of relatives with etiologies of ESRD other than SLE suggests that there is an inherited susceptibility to progressive renal failure, independent of the etiology of ESRD.