OBJECTIVE: T cells from a majority of patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) display antigen receptor-mediated signaling aberrations associated with defective T cell receptor (TCR) zeta chain, a subunit of the TCR/CD3 complex. This study was undertaken to explore the possibility that forced expression of TCR zeta chain may reverse the known signaling abnormalities and defective interleukin-2 (IL-2) production in SLE T cells. METHODS: Freshly isolated SLE T cells were transfected with TCR zeta chain construct in a eukaryotic expression vector at high efficiency, by a recently developed nucleoporation technique. Restoration of TCR/CD3-mediated signaling was studied in the zeta chain-transfected cells. RESULTS: In SLE T cells transfected with TCR zeta chain, surface expression of TCR chain was increased and the TCR/CD3-induced increased free intracytoplasmic calcium concentration response was normalized, as was hyperphosphorylation of cellular substrates. Simultaneously, the previously noted increased expression of the Fc receptor gamma chain was diminished in SLE T cells transfected with the zeta chain expression vector, and the surface membrane clusters of cell signaling molecules were redistributed to a more continuous pattern. TCR zeta chain replacement also augmented the expression of diminished TCR/CD3-mediated IL-2 production in SLE T cells, associated with increased expression of the p65 subunit of nuclear factor kappaB in the nuclear fractions of these T cells. CONCLUSION: These results suggest that reconstitution of deficient TCR zeta chain can reverse the TCR/CD3-mediated signaling abnormalities as well as the defective IL-2 production in T cells of patients with SLE.