Cytotoxic cells possess specialized granules which contain perforin and a group of serine proteinases termed granzymes. Granzyme-positive cells have been identified in synovial fluid and tissue of patients with RA, where they may play an important role as mediators of granule-mediated apoptosis, extracellular proteolysis, and cytokine induction. The aim here was to define further the involvement of cytotoxic cells in RA. Plasma and synovial fluid samples from the knee joint were obtained from 31 RA patients. The disease controls included 20 osteoarthritis (OA) patients and 10 reactive arthritis (ReA) patients. A recently developed capture ELISA was used to detect soluble granzymes A and B in all patients. Compared with OA and ReA disease controls, markedly increased levels of soluble granzymes A and B were detected in both plasma and synovial fluid of RA patients (P < 0·00001). When values for soluble granzymes A and B in plasma and synovial fluid were used simultaneously as independent variables, logistic regression analysis indicated that a diagnosis of RA could be predicted correctly in 84% of the RA patients and a diagnosis of non-RA in 90% of the controls. The markedly elevated levels of soluble granzymes A and B in plasma and synovial fluid of RA patients strongly suggest that cytotoxic cells are active participants in the pathogenesis of RA. Moreover, the results suggest that measurement of granzymes may assist the laboratory evaluation of patients with arthritis. Larger studies in patients with early disease may clarify the role of this test system in differential diagnosis.