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Background: Tumour necrosis α (TNFα) blocking agents lead to pronounced clinical effects and reduced synovial infiltrate in rheumatoid arthritis. Laboratory and clinical studies suggest that TNFα independent pathways play a role in the disease.
Objectives: To evaluate the immunopathological effects of combination therapy on rheumatoid synovial tissue in order to identify TNFα independent mechanisms.
Methods: 12 rheumatoid patients, including four DMARD (disease modifying antirheumatic drug) naive patients with early disease, were studied for the effect of combination therapy with infliximab and methotrexate on the synovial infiltrate. Biopsies and clinical assessments (DAS28) were carried out before the first and after the third infusion of infliximab. Synovial inflammation was scored semiquantitatively. Co-expression of CD38+ cells was studied by an immunofluorescent double labelling technique.
Results: Marked clinical responses were associated with a global reduction in the synovial infiltrate and expression of cytokines, notably interleukin 18 and TNFα, but low grade disease activity persisted. There was no effect on the expression of CXC chemokine ligand (CXCL12), and germinal centre-like structures were still detectable in synovial tissue in two patients after treatment. CD38+ activated T cells were more resistant to treatment than CD38+ plasma cells. No differences in clinical response or effects on synovial infiltrate were observed between DMARD refractory and DMARD naive patients.
Conclusions: Persistent expression of CXCL12 and incomplete resolution of lymphocytic infiltrates after infliximab plus methotrexate indicates that TNFα independent mechanisms are operative in rheumatoid arthritis. This may contribute to low grade disease activity, even in DMARD naive patients with early disease.