OBJECTIVE: The objective of this paper is to elucidate the role of specific cytokines in lupus (SLE) arthritis.METHODS: Fifty SLE and 40 RA patients had an ultrasound (US) scan of their hand as per standardized protocols. US scores were expressed per joint and as a total 'US activity' score, (sum of power Doppler (PD) and grey-scale synovial hypertrophy scores in all joints) and a total erosion score. SLE disease activity was assessed (BILAG and SELENA-SLEDAI). Plasma levels of IL-6, TNF-alpha and BLyS were measured using sandwich ELISA kits (Quantikine kits, R & D).RESULTS: On the basis of the US results SLE patients were divided into three groups: erosive arthritis (n = 20), non-erosive arthritis (n = 18) and those with a normal US scan (n = 12). Across the SLE groups plasma IL-6 levels correlated with CRP (p <0.001), hand deformity scores (p = 0.005), BILAG musculoskeletal score (p = 0.009), wrist PD score (p = 0.01), the presence of tenosynovitis (p = 0.008) and total US activity score (p <0.001) (which remained constant when corrected for total BILAG score). Neither TNF-alpha nor BLyS levels correlated with US or clinical measures of lupus arthritis; however, TNF-alpha correlated with total BILAG score (p <0.001).CONCLUSION: This is the first study to examine levels of specific cytokines in a cohort of SLE patients stratified in terms of joint disease by US, where the most significant finding is that IL-6 levels correlated both with clinical and US measures of arthritis disease activity.