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Anti-histone and anti-chromatin antibody responses play a central role in the autoimmune response of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Furthermore, anti-histone H1 antibodies are essential for the formation of the lupus erythematosus cell (LEC) phenomenon. In this study, the binding properties of LEC+ and LEC- SLE sera to chromatin-associated nuclear antigens (histones H1, H2A, H2B, H3, H4; complexes of H2A-H2B, [H2A-H2B]-DNA, H1-DNA; total and H1-stripped chromatin; native and denatured DNA) were investigated. In addition, sera from patients with drug-induced lupus (by procainamide, hydralazine, or quinidine), as well as from patients with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, were assessed. Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay was used to detect specific antibody binding. Mirroring the important role of histone H1 in the formation of LE cells, anti-histone H1 reactivity was 8-fold higher in LEC+ sera than in LEC- sera. In addition, reactivities to most of the other antigens tested, i.e., other histones and histone-DNA complexes as well as chromatin and DNA, were significantly higher in LEC+ sera than in LEC- sera. All but 1 serum sample from the patients with drug-induced lupus were negative for LE cell formation as well as for anti-histone H1 reactivity, but displayed high antibody reactivities to histone-DNA complexes, including chromatin. Sera from patients with rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis did not show significant binding to these antigens. When comparing the clinical features of LEC+ and LEC-SLE patients, severe organ involvement, including nephritis and central nervous system involvement, was common in the LEC+ group, but rare in the LEC- group. A positive LE cell phenomenon not only correlated with the presence of high anti-histone H1 antibody levels in SLE, but also indicated serologically and clinically active disease with major organ involvement.