PBMC from patients with autoimmune diseases and from normal controls were studied for the expression of several cellular oncogenes. Gene expression was assessed by Northern blot analysis of poly(A)+ RNA obtained from leukapheresis samples. Patients with SLE expressed significantly more c-myc protooncogene RNA than did normal controls. Increased expression of the N-ras protooncogene was found in that subset of patients whose autoimmune disease was very active. Cells from individuals with SLE, but not from those with other autoimmune illnesses, showed significantly decreased levels of the c-myb and c-fos protooncogenes. To examine the implications of these findings, B and T cells were purified from apheresis samples donated by normal volunteers. When mitogen was used to activate the B cells in vitro, their pattern of protooncogene expression changed to resemble that found in freshly isolated cells from lupus patients. These results suggest that the differences detected in the expression of protooncogenes by patients with SLE may be due to the abnormal activation of their B cells in vivo. The pattern of protooncogene expression found in patients with other autoimmune illnesses is consistent with the activation of additional cell types in those diseases.