Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) has a complex clinical picture, and a number of defects in the immune system have been described in patients with the disease. Most organs can be involved in SLE, and in addition to the typical major organ manifestations (e.g. from kidneys and the central nervous system), early cardiovascular disease is a major determinant of prognosis. Several important findings during the last decade have increased the understanding of the mechanisms behind the disease characteristics and the underlying autoimmune process. Amongst, these are defects in the handling of apoptotic cells, increased expression of type I interferon-regulated genes and activation of autoreactive B cells, with both the type I interferon system and the B lymphocyte stimulator (BLyS) having key roles. In addition, a large number of genes have been identified that contribute to these abnormalities. It has also become clear that certain SLE risk genes are associated with some organ manifestations, such as STAT4 with nephritis and IRF8 with myocardial infarction. Furthermore, environmental factors that can induce SLE or trigger a disease flare have been identified. As a consequence of this increased knowledge, new treatments for SLE have been developed. The most recently approved drug for SLE is belimumab, which blocks BLyS, and several new therapies and therapeutic strategies are in the pipeline for clinical application.