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Background: Mast cells have been implicated in the pathogenesis of arthritis, but elucidation of their precise role has been hampered by a lack of efficient and selective inhibitors of their function.
Objective: To elucidate the role of mast cells in the pathogenesis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and to assess whether apoptosis of cultured and synovial tissue mast cells can be induced by inhibiting mast cell growth factor receptor, c-kit tyrosine kinase.
Methods and results: Double staining with tumour necrosis factor (TNF) α and tryptase antibodies showed the presence of TNFα positive mast cells in human rheumatoid synovial tissue. Selective activation of mast cells by anti-IgE resulted in production of TNFα in synovial tissue cultures. Inhibition of the c-kit tyrosine kinase with imatinib mesylate (1.0–10 µmol/l) induced profound apoptosis in cultured mast cells as judged by typical apoptotic morphology, increased number of apoptotic nucleosomes, and activation of caspases 8 and 9. Importantly, imatinib also induced apoptosis of mast cells in explant cultures of synovial tissue obtained from patients with RA as judged by a TUNEL assay. Inhibition of c-kit tyrosine kinase was accompanied by significant reduction of TNFα production in synovial tissue cultures.
Conclusion: Mast cells may have a role in the pathogenesis of RA, and inhibition of c-kit may be a new means of inhibiting mast cell activity and of abrogating the contribution of mast cells to synovial inflammation in RA.