AIMS: To study the expression of cell adhesion molecules in the renal biopsy specimens of patients with systemic vasculitis and Henoch-Schönlein purpura (HSP); to correlate this with the severity of glomerular inflammation. METHODS: Renal biopsy specimens obtained from eight patients with untreated systemic vasculitis (four with Wegener's granulomatosis and four with microscopic polyarteritis), eight with HSP and nine controls (four with normal histopathology and five with thin glomerular basement membrane disease) were stained using the alkaline phosphatase anti-alkaline phosphatase method with monoclonal antibodies directed against intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1), vascular cell adhesion molecule-1 (VCAM-1) and E-selectin. RESULTS: Biopsy specimens of normal kidneys expressed ICAM-1 in glomerular endocapillary cells, Bowman's capsule epithelium, interstitial cells and interstitial vascular endothelium, and VCAM-1 in Bowman's capsule epithelium, proximal tubular epithelium and interstitial vascular endothelium. No staining with antibody directed against E-selectin was seen in any of the biopsy specimens. Biopsy specimens of patients with a vasculitic glomerulonephritis (segmental necrotising glomerulonephritis) expressed VCAM-1 in glomerular endocapillary cells (four of eight patients with systemic vasculitis; two of eight patients with HSP). In patients with a systemic vasculitis glomerular VCAM-1 expression was associated with a more severe renal lesoin (44, 50, 60, and 65% of glomeruli involved) than in those not showing glomerular VCAM-1 expression (3, 3, 11, and 39% of glomeruli involved). CONCLUSION: Expression of VCAM-1 by glomerular endocapillary cells in renal biopsy specimens raises the possibility that recruitment of VLA-4 bearing leucocytes may contribute to glomerular injury in Wegener's granulomatosis and microscopic polyarteritis.