Background Patients with systemic autoimmune rheumatic diseases (SARD) often have a prolonged pre-clinical phase during which they are anti-nuclear antibody (ANA)+ but lack clinical symptoms. Here we sought to determine whether ANA+ individuals who lack sufficient symptoms for a SARD diagnosis share the B cell phenotypic changes seen in SARD.
Materials and methods Healthy controls (HC) and ANA+ individuals who: 1) lacked clinical symptoms of SARD (ANS); 2) had at least one clinical symptom of SARD (UCTD); or 3) had recently diagnosed steroid and immunosuppressive naïve SARD (SLE, SS, SSc, MCTD, DM) were recruited. PBMCs were stained with various combinations of fluorescently labelled antibodies and analysed by flow cytometry. Anti-nuclear antibodies were measured through the hospital laboratory. Whole blood IFN signature and BAFF RNA levels were measured by NanoString.
Results B cell phenotypes were examined for 32 HC, 38 ANS, 28 UCTD, and 59 early SARD patients. Patients with early SARD had a number of changes in their naïve and memory B cell subsets including: increased proportions of mature naïve (SSc) and T1T2 cells (SLE and SS), and decreased proportions of switched memory cells (all SARD). Similar decreases in the proportion of switched memory B cells were seen in ANS and UCTD patients, and as seen for the SARD patients, these cells were activated with elevated levels of CD86 as compared to HC. Significantly increased activation of the CD27-IgD- memory compartment was also seen in ANS, UCTD, SLE and SjD patients. Although significantly increased proportions of plasmablasts and/or CD138+ plasma cells were seen in early SARD patients, these were not seen in ANS and UCTD patients. Nevertheless, in pre-SARD individuals (ANS + UCTD) there was a significant positive correlation between the size of these cell subsets and ANA titer as well as the number of different anti-nuclear antibody specificities. As observed for early SARD patients, there was a trend to increased BAFF levels as compared to HC in pre-SARD individuals, which achieved statistical significance in UCTD patients. However, there was no association between the levels of BAFF and any of the B cell phenotypes, whereas the IFN signature was positively associated with the proportion of T1T2 cells.
Conclusions B cell phenotypic abnormalities precede the onset of clinical disease in ANA+ individuals and have a pattern suggesting ongoing activation through T-B collaboration.
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