Systemic-onset juvenile chronic arthritis (SoJCA) is associated with high levels of circulating interleukin-6 (IL-6) and is frequently complicated by severe microcytic anemia whose pathogenesis is unclear. Therefore, we studied 20 consecutive SoJCA patients with hemoglobin (Hb) levels <12 g/dL, evaluating erythroid progenitor proliferation, endogenous erythropoietin production, body iron status, and iron supply for erythropoiesis. Hb concentrations ranged from 6.5 to 11.9 g/dL. Hb level was directly related to mean corpuscular volume (r = .82, P < .001) and inversely related to circulating transferrin receptor (r = -.81, P < .001) suggesting that the severity of anemia was directly proportional to the degree of iron-deficient erythropoiesis. Serum ferritin ranged from 18 to 1,660 microgram/L and was unrelated to Hb level. Bone marrow iron stores wore markedly reduced in the three children investigated, and they also showed increased serum transferrin receptor and normal-to-high serum ferritin. All 20 patients had elevated IL-6 levels and normal in vitro growth of erythroid progenitors. Endogenous erythropoietin (epo) production was appropriate for the degree of anemia as judged by both the observed to predicted log (serum epo) ratio 10.95 +/- 0.12) and a comparison of the serum epo-Hb regression found in these subjects with that of thalassemia patients. Multiple regression analysis showed that serum transferrin receptor was the parameter most closely related to hemoglobin concentration: variation in circulating transferrin receptor explained 61% of the variation in Hb level (P < .001). In 10 severely anemic patients, amelioration of anemia following intravenous iron administration resulted in normalization of serum transferrin receptor. Defective iron supply to the erythron rather than blunted epo production is the major cause of the microcytic anemia associated with SoJCA. A true body-iron deficiency caused by decreased iron absorption likely complicates long-lasting inflammation in the most anemic children, and this can be recognized by high serum transferrin receptor levels. Although oral iron is of no benefit, intravenous iron saccharate is a safe and effective means for improving iron availability for erythropoiesis and correcting this anemia. Thus, while chronically high endogenous IL-6 levels do not appear to blunt epo production, they are probably responsible for the observed abnormalities in iron metabolism. Anemia of chronic disease encompasses a variety of anemic conditions whose peculiar features may specifically correlate with the type of cytokine(s) predominantly released.