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We investigated the production of IL-2, IFN-γ, IL-10 and IL-4 by by PBMC from 24 patients with SLE and 10 healthy individuals. Basal and mitogen-stimulated (lipopolysaccharide and phytohaemagglutinin (LPS + PHA)) cytokine production was determined in a whole blood assay (WBA). Supernatants were collected and assayed with specific ELISAs. Although the IL-2 and IFN-γ contents did not differ significantly between patients and controls under both conditions, statistically significant correlations were found between each cytokine and disease activity (SLAM index) after stimulation (respectively, r = 0·501, P = 0·01 and r = 0·631, P = 0·001). PBMC IL-10 production was significantly higher for patients than controls (P = 0·05), but no correlation between IL-10 levels and the SLAM index was obtained. IL-4 production was not statistically different between SLE patients and controls. For stimulated WBAs, the IL-10/IL-2 and IL-10/IFN-γ ratios were significantly correlated with disease severity (P = 0·02; P = 0·001, respectively). Overall, our data suggest that SLE is characterized by an elevated production of IL-10, reflecting the basal state of activation of the immune system. During exacerbation of SLE, IL-2 and IFN-γ are synthesized in larger amounts and may cause the tissue damage observed.