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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
J Immunol. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2013 January 15.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC3238790

Plasmacytoid dendritic cells and C1q differentially regulate inflammatory gene induction by lupus immune complexes1


Immune complexes (ICs) play a pivotal role in causing inflammation in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)3. Yet, it remains unclear what the dominant blood cell type(s) and inflammation related gene programs stimulated by lupus ICs are. To address these questions, we exposed normal human peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) or CD14+ isolated monocytes to SLE ICs in the presence or absence of C1q and performed microarray analysis and other tests for cell activation. By microarray analysis, we identified genes and pathways regulated by SLE ICs that are both type I IFN dependent and independent. We also found that C1q containing ICs markedly reduced expression of the majority of IFN-response genes and also influenced the expression of multiple other genes induced by SLE ICs. Surprisingly, IC activation of isolated CD14+ monocytes did not upregulate CD40 and CD86 and only modestly stimulated inflammatory gene expression. However, when monocyte subsets were purified and analyzed separately, the low abundance CD14dim (‘patrolling’) subpopulation was more responsive to ICs. These observations demonstrate the importance of plasmacytoid dendritic cells (pDCs), CD14dim monocytes and C1q as key regulators of inflammatory properties of ICs and identify many pathways through which they act.

Keywords: Immune complexes, interferon alpha, plasmacytoid dendritic cells, monocytes, systemic lupus erythematosus, gene regulation, complement


Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a multisystem autoimmune disease characterized by the presence of high titer autoantibodies directed against self nucleoproteins (reviewed in (1). Some of these antibodies interact with antigens to form immune complexes (ICs) that deposit in the kidneys, skin and vasculature (2, 3). ICs also directly engage FcγRs expressed on macrophages and neutrophils resulting in the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines, proteolytic enzymes and reactive oxygen intermediates (4). Thus ICs, especially after complement activation, are thought to be the predominant inducers of tissue injury in SLE (3, 5).

Despite these findings, individuals with loss of function mutations of the first complement component, C1q, almost invariably develop SLE (reviewed in (6)). This “lupus paradox” (7) where complement activation promotes tissue injury yet complement deficiency predisposes to SLE has, in part, been reconciled by studies demonstrating the protective role of classical complement pathway components (C1–4) in facilitating the clearance of lupus antigens (apoptotic debris) (810). In contrast, it is the complement components downstream of C3, especially release of C3a and C5a that promote chemotaxis and inflammation as well as deposition of C5b-9 together that promote tissue injury (1113).

More recently, C1q has been shown to protect against SLE by a separate effect, via preventing the stimulation of type I interferon (IFN) (14, 15). We observed that, in the absence of C1q, ICs bind to FcγRII on plasmacytoid dendritic cells (pDCs) and potently stimulate IFN-α production, whereas ICs containing C1q (C1q-ICs) bound predominantly to monocytes and IFN-α production by pDCs was markedly attenuated (15). Although C1q-ICs did not stimulate monocytes to produce soluble factors such as IL-10 or TNF-α that could explain IFN-α suppression, we could not exclude the possibility that ICs induce a ligand on monocytes that engages one of the many inhibitory receptors on pDCs.

In order to obtain comprehensive data of genes differentially regulated by exposure of blood cells to SLE ICs, to determine how this profile is altered in the presence of C1q-ICs and to evaluate the inflammatory properties of ICs on monocytes in the absence of pDCs, we performed gene expression analysis of peripheral blood as well as isolated monocytes stimulated by ICs or C1q-ICs. Our results enable comparison between the in vitro effects of ICs and ex vivo inflammatory gene transcript profiles as well as those genes regulated by C1q. They also show limited CD14+ monocyte stimulation by ICs in the absence of pDCs and suggest relevant genes and pathways that should prove productive for future investigation of SLE pathogenesis.

Materials and Methods


Purified C1q protein was purchased from Complement Technology, Inc. Neutralizing antibody to IFN-α was purchased from Millipore Corp. Loxoribine was purchased from Invivogen, Inc. All reagents had < 0.06 EU/ml endotoxin by LAL clot assay (Cape Cod Associates).


All SLE patients fulfilled the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) 1982 revised criteria for the classification of SLE (16). All serum samples were collected with the respective institutions review board approval.

Cell purification

Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) were prepared from healthy human donors or SLE patients using Ficoll-Paque density gradient centrifugation. For normal donor experiments, a different healthy donor was used for each independent experiment. In certain experiments, pDCs were depleted from PBMCs using BDCA-4 magnetic beads (Miltenyi Biotec, Inc.) with less than 0.03% remaining in each experiment. As an additional control, PBMCs were mock depleted by incubating cells without beads but still placed through the magnetic column. Total monocytes were purified from PBMCs by positive selection with CD14 magnetic beads (Miltenyi Biotec, Inc.) with consistent purities of > 95% and undetectable percentages of contaminating pDCs. In certain experiments, monocyte subsets were sorted to purities of >90–95% using methods described by others (17). Briefly, cells were stained with the following fluorescently labeled antibodies (all from Biolegend, Inc. unless otherwise noted): CD19-PE (clone HIB19), CD56-PE (clone MEM-188), NKp46-PE (clone 9E2), CD15-PE (clone H198), CD2-PE (clone RPA-2.10), HLA-DR-PerCp/Cy5.5 (clone L243), CD16-Alexa Fluor 488 (clone 3G8), and CD14-APC-Alexa Fluor 780 (clone 61D3, eBioscience). Cells were gated for the monocyte population which lacked the PE stain (B cells, NK cells, granulocytes, and T cells), but which was HLA-DR+; this was further divided into three monocytes subsets which included the CD14+CD16, CD14+CD16, and CD14dimCD16+ subsets which were sorted and collected live using a FACSAria flow cytometer (BD Biosciences, Inc.).

Cell stimulation

To form ICs, high dilutions of SLE serum or purified SLE IgG (5–15 μg/ml) was used as a source of autoantibodies and freeze-thawed U937 cells were used as autoantigen as described previously (15, 18, 19). Briefly, SLE serum (diluted 1:1000– 1:2000 with RPMI media) was mixed with U937 freeze-thawed cell extract. Cell debris was removed by centrifugation and the extract added to the cell type being tested at a 1% v/v concentration. As reported previously, IFN-α production was RNA, FcγRIIa and TLR7 dependent (19). Although many SLE patient sera were used in the course of this study, the 2 sera used to make ICs for the microarray experiments both had the following autoantibody profile: Sm/RNP+, Ro-, La-, dsDNA+. ICs were added to normal PBMCs (5 × 105/well) and left unprimed or primed with type I IFN and GM-CSF as previously described (15, 18, 19). In our culture system, IFN-α is only produced by pDCs as antibodies to BDCA-2 abrogated IFN-α production as described previously,(20) and IFN-α was not detectable in pDC depleted PBMCs or purified monocyte cultures (data not shown). U937 cells were determined to be free of mycoplasma contamination using e-Myco Mycoplasma PCR detection kit (iNtRON Biotechnology). Toxicity of added inhibitors was monitored by flow cytometry with LIVE/DEAD I/R (Invitrogen Corp.).


Unprimed total PBMCs from 2 different healthy donors were plated in 24 well plates at 2 × 106/well in 1 well and left unstimulated or stimulated with SLE ICs formed as above with or without C1q for ~5 h. For monocyte stimulations, a total of 1 × 106 monocytes per condition from 2 different healthy donors were plated in 2 wells of a 96 well plate and left unstimulated or stimulated as above. Cells were washed 3x in PBS and total RNA was isolated using a Qiagen RNeasy kit with on column DNase treatment (Qiagen, Inc.). RNA (400 ng) was checked for high quality using an Agilent 2100 Bioanalyzer (Agilent Technologies) by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Genomics Resource and samples were labeled and hybridized to Illumina’s Human Ref-8v3 Expression BeadChips following the manufacturer’s recommendations (Illumina, Inc.). BeadChips were scanned on an Illumina Bead Array Reader System.

Microarray data analysis

Probe-level results were generated in GenomeStudio Data Analysis Software’s Gene Expression Module (GSGX) Version 1.5.4 (Illumina, Inc.). BeadChip results were background corrected and quantile normalized using the Bioconductor package lumi (21). A small offset was applied across all arrays to bring values above 0. Data was discarded from further analysis if the processed signal across pair-wise comparisons was below 3 times the mean intensity values of the negative control probes on the BeadChips. Microarray data have been deposited in the GEO database and are accessible through the GEO Series accession number GSE32285 ( Genes listed in tables had gene expression changes up- or down-regulated more than 1.5-fold compared to unstimulated controls in both donors which allowed detailed pathway analysis by Ingenuity software. In some cases, changes in gene expression of 2-fold or greater were analyzed separately. Functional analysis of differentially expressed genes was performed using Ingenuity pathways analysis (Ingenuity Systems). Some genes considered were not eligible for Ingenuity pathway analysis, but are included in the Venn diagrams. The significance of the association between the data set and the canonical pathway was measured using Fisher’s exact test to calculate a P value representing the probability that the association between the transcripts in the data set and the canonical pathway was explained by chance alone. Canonical functions were also determined and networks were overlaid with expression data from the data set. Interferon stimulated genes (ISGs) were identified by examining 8 publications (2229) plus the database specifically for type I IFN(30).

Quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR)

First-strand cDNA was generated with the RNA-to-cDNA kit (Applied Biosystems) using random primers. cDNA was diluted to an equivalent of 0.2 ng/μl total RNA and 8μl was used per reaction. Primers for the reference gene (18S) and genes of interest (GOI) were synthesized by IDT, Inc. After melt curve and standard curve analysis, primers where diluted to the most efficient concentrations for qRT-PCR using molecular grade water. BLAST results of the primers show specific sequence homology only to the reference gene or GOI. Reactions in duplicate or triplicate (20μl) were run on an ABI Fast 7500 system using a 1:1 mix of template/primer to SensiMix SYBR low-ROX master mix (Bioline, Inc.). Relative quantification was calculated using the 2−ddCT method with unstimulated cells as baseline to determine fold changes for each GOI. Primer sequences for genes are shown in Supplementary Table I.

Cytokine detection

IFN-α levels in supernatants were quantified by ELISA using commercially available antibodies as described (15). IP-10, MCP-1, MCP-3, IL-1RA, IL-8, IL-10, IL-12p40, IL-1β and MIP-1α levels were quantified in supernatants using a custom 9-plex Bio-Plex® kit from Bio-Rad Laboratories. TNF-α was measured in supernatants by ELISAs with antibody pairs from Biolegend, Inc.

Flow cytometry for activation markers

Cells were left untreated (medium) or ICs were added to total PBMCs, pDC depleted PBMCs or purified monocytes as part of the stimulation assay described above. At least 2 different SLE patient ICs were added for each independent experiment. After 2 d of stimulation, cells were washed and surface stained to identify monocytes (CD14 clone HCD14, Biolegend, Inc.) and the level of expression of the activation markers CD86 (clone IT2.2, Biolegend, Inc.) and CD40 (clone 5C3, Biolegend Inc.). Monocyte subsets were gated for activation analysis as described above. The mean fluorescent intensities (MFI) for each marker are plotted.

Statistical analysis

Statistical significance between groups was determined by Mann-Whitney test, unpaired/paired t test or one way ANOVA, where appropriate. Correlations between parameters were assessed using the Pearson correlation analysis and linear regression analysis. A P-value < 0.05 was considered significant. Graphs and statistical analyses were performed using Prism software (v 4, Graphpad Software, Inc.).


RNA-containing SLE ICs predominantly induce IFN stimulated gene expression in PBMCs

ICs have been implicated in the induction of tissue inflammation in SLE and many other diseases (reviewed in (31)). Although it is now well documented that SLE ICs stimulate IFN-α production by pDCs (15, 3234), the full range of cytokine and other inflammatory markers produced by whole blood mononuclear cells has not been studied by unbiased comprehensive approaches such as microarray. To identify common genes stimulated by SLE ICs, we incubated total PBMCs from 2 different donors (responder cells) each with a different SLE ICs and then examined gene expression by microarray analysis after 6 h. Using Ingenuity software to analyze genes for pathway analysis, 243 genes and 218 annotated genes were up- or down-regulated greater than 1.5-fold by SLE ICs in donors D1 and D2, respectively. Of the 150 genes that were common between the 2 donors, 137 genes were upregulated and 13 genes downregulated more than 1.5-fold (Fig. 1A, Table I, Supplementary Table II). We observed a striking induction of ISGs such that 43/50 top genes regulated have previously been linked to type I IFNs (bold lettering, Table I) (see Materials and Methods for publications used to determine ISGs). Although 2 different donors and ICs were used, the top genes induced were very similar in the responder cells with identical top 5 canonical pathways and network functions (Fig. 1B, C). We validated 6 genes regulated more than 1.5-fold by qRT-PCR using an additional 2 donors for a total of 4 independent experiments and found a significant correlation between the fold induction obtained from qRT-PCR and the microarray data with those 6 genes tested (Fig. 1D, E). Although 70% of all genes regulated were type I IFN ISGs, we also identified numerous other genes regulated by SLE ICs that include cytokines (eg. IL1F7, increased 5-fold), transcription factors (eg. EGR1, reduced almost 3-fold) and cell surface receptors (eg. CLEC12A, reduced ~2-fold) (Table I).

Figure 1
Differential expression of genes and pathways in PBMCs after exposure to SLE ICs
Table I
Top 50 genes changed upon addition of SLE ICs to total PBMC cultures

The addition of C1q to ICs reduced the expression of ISGs and modulated the expression of multiple other genes

We recently observed that the addition of C1q to SLE ICs markedly reduced IFN-α stimulation and that this effect was explained in part, by monocytes “stealing” the ICs away from pDCs (15). To examine the effect of C1q on ISGs and also determine what other pathways were altered by the presence of C1q bound to ICs (C1q-ICs), we repeated the microarray analysis as above except that we compared SLE IC stimulation in the presence or absence of C1q. In total, 241 genes were up- or down-regulated more than 1.5-fold by C1q-ICs compared to IC stimulation alone with 67 genes upregulated and 174 genes downregulated (Table II, Supplementary Table III). The top 50 genes regulated 1.5-fold or greater are shown in Table II. Upon analysis of the top canonical pathways regulated by C1q, the top 3 were directly related to type I IFNs (Fig. 2A) and the top networks included many of these genes as well (Fig. 2B). A strong correlation between the microarray and qRT-PCR results were observed with 3 genes and 4 different PBMC donors (Fig. 2C, D). Of the top 50 genes listed in Table I, the expression of 40/50 was reduced by C1q (from 1.5 to 4.4-fold) and only 6 of these ISGs were not changed. Interestingly, 25 of the top 50 genes regulated by C1q-ICs were not ISGs (Table II). Transcripts encoding multiple cytokines/chemokines (eg. CCL20, CCL23, CXCL1), receptors (eg. CD36, STAB1, TNFRSF4, FCGR2A), and enzymes (eg. RNASE1,2, 6, ITK, HPSE, SOD2, SYK) were either up- or down-regulated in the presence of C1q-ICs reinforcing the finding that C1q affects multiple pathways that are not direct targets of type I IFNs.

Figure 2
Differential expression of genes and pathways in PBMCs after exposure to C1q containing ICs (C1q-ICs) compared to ICs alone
Table II
Top 50 genes changed upon addition of C1q to SLE ICs in total PBMC cultures

SLE ICs induce a limited inflammatory response in isolated CD14+ monocytes

Our results so far indicate that when whole PBMCs are exposed to SLE ICs, the transcriptome reflects a powerful inflammatory response dominated by changes most closely linked to the type I IFN pathway. Yet, ICs are known to engage the activating receptor FcγRIIA which is abundantly expressed on CD14+ monocytes and would be expected to induce other inflammatory cytokines (4, 35, 36). To address the inflammatory potential of SLE ICs directly on monocytes, we isolated CD14+ monocytes to >95% purity with no contaminating pDCs detected and then incubated them with the same SLE ICs and performed microarray expression analysis as for total PBMCs. Surprisingly, compared to whole PBMCs, many fewer genes were modulated similarly in both donors’ purified monocytes (150 genes in whole PBMCs versus 21 genes in monocytes, Fig. 3A, Table III) with 1 top canonical pathway in common (Fig. 3B). A strong correlation between the microarray and qRT-PCR results were observed with 5 genes using 4 different PBMC donors (Fig. 3C, D). Since 168 genes were regulated in D1 and 98 in D2 monocytes, but only 21 genes up- and down-regulated respectively in both donors, there was a much greater degree of individual variation in monocytes from different donors compared to PBMCs. Apart from the greater degree of variation in monocytes, changes in gene expression were more modest – only 7 and 14 genes were modulated 2-fold or greater in each donors’ monocytes (with 3 genes commonly regulated in both donors) as compared to 121 and 85 modulated 2-fold or greater for each donors’ PBMCs (with 68 genes commonly regulated in both donors). The only two transcripts induced 2-fold or greater in both donors’ monocytes were SLC16A10, and CXCL5. SLC16A10 (solute carrier family 16, member 10, also known as monocarboxylate transporter, MCT10) is a member of a family of plasma membrane amino acid transporters that mediate the transport of aromatic amino acids across the plasma membrane. Although 9/21 genes regulated by SLE ICs in purified monocytes have previously been linked to type I IFNs (bolded in Table III), these were expressed at low levels and the ISG transcripts that were most strongly induced in PBMC such as RSAD2, CXCL10, IFIT1-3 and OAS1, L were not expressed in isolated monocyte cultures exposed to ICs. Of genes differentially expressed, 7 were common between PBMCs and purified monocytes with similar levels of expression (SLC16A10, CXCL5, CCL7, CRADD, CTSL1, IL1RN and TLR8).

Figure 3
Differential expression of genes and pathways in purified CD14+ monocytes after exposure to SLE ICs
Table III
Genes regulated more than 1.5 fold upon addition of SLE ICs to purified monocytes

C1q modulates monocyte gene expression induced by SLE ICs

C1q binding to ICs increases binding to monocytes and away from pDCs and also affects intracellular trafficking within monocytes (15). To determine whether the composition of the IC (C1q present or not) affected gene induction as well, we compared gene expression in isolated monocytes exposed to C1q-ICs versus ICs alone. In total, 36 genes were differentially expressed (Table IV) and 11 genes were concordantly regulated compared to total PBMCs (ADAP2, C7ORF50, CCL20, CCL4L1, H1FX, IL1A, MERTK, PTMA, RCBTB2, SLC39A8, TNFRSF4). The gene TNIP3 (also known as ABIN-3) was upregulated ~2-fold by C1q-ICs and may be related to our findings that C1q is anti-inflammatory as ABIN-3 inhibits NFκB activation induced by LPS, IL-1 and TNF-α (37, 38). Another gene of interest that was upregulated ~1.9-fold by C1q-ICs compared to ICs alone was CCL20. One function of CCL20 is to downregulate reactive oxygen species (ROS) production in monocytes (39), again demonstrating that C1q affects multiple downstream anti-inflammatory pathways independent of IFN-α.

Table IV
Genes regulated more than 1.5 fold upon addition of C1q to SLE ICs in purified monocyte cultures

Differential effects of SLE ICs on monocyte subsets

Microarray analysis revealed a lower magnitude of change of gene expression on isolated CD14+ monocytes compared to PBMCs. Maturation and activation of monocytes leads to an upregulation of co-stimulatory molecule expression, therefore we further investigated the question of the inflammatory potential of SLE ICs on monocytes by flow cytometric analysis. In agreement with the limited changes in gene expression observed, we found that exposure of total monocytes to SLE ICs did not induce significant upregulation of CD86 or CD40 (Fig. 4A). As a positive control, the TLR3 agonist Poly I:C upregulated both CD86 and CD40 4–5-fold (data not shown). If IFN-α was the sole factor produced in total PBMC cultures that allowed monocytes to respond to SLE ICs, then priming cells with IFN-α should restore activation by ICs. Whereas IFN-α priming itself upregulated both CD86 and CD40, when we compared co-stimulatory protein expression in the presence or absence of IFN-α, we observed no differences in CD86 or CD40 upregulation on monocytes when stimulated by 3 different SLE ICs (Fig. 4B). These data support the gene array findings of limited activation of isolated CD14 monocytes by SLE ICs and that IFN-α itself plays a greater role in co-stimulatory molecule upregulation on monocytes.

Figure 4
SLE ICs upregulate CD86 only on CD14dim monocytes

Monocytes are a heterogeneous population of cells that, based on CD14 and CD16 expression, can be divided into 3 functional subsets: CD14dimCD16+, CD14+CD16+, and CD14+CD16 (17). Since Cros et al. (17) reported that it is the minor (comprising only ~7% of total monocytes) CD14dimCD16+ ‘patrolling monocyte’ subpopulation that preferentially respond to TLR7 and 8 agonists, we tested whether SLE ICs could upregulate CD86 expression on this rare circulating subset. When monocyte subsets were sorted to high purities and cultured with ICs for 2 days, we found that SLE ICs did in fact upregulate CD86 expression on CD14dim, but not the other monocyte subsets (Fig. 4C). When we compared binding of ICs to each subset within total PBMC cultures, we found that while all monocyte subsets bound ICs, the greatest binding was to the CD14+CD16+ subset (Fig. 4D). With addition of C1q, the IC binding to all subsets increased, but binding increased 5- to 6-fold on both of the CD14high monocytes subsets while for the CD14dim subset the increase was only 3-fold (Fig. 4D). Taken together, these observations indicate that ICs induce limited inflammatory gene expression or upregulation of co-stimulatory molecules on total CD14+ monocytes. They do however upregulate CD86 expression on the CD14dim population and C1q preferentially enhances monocyte binding away from the CD14dim population.

pDCs are required for strong activation of CD14+ monocytes by SLE ICs

The findings above suggest that most monocytes (the CD14dim subset being the exception), are poorly activated in isolation, but are potently activated in the presence of other blood cells. To determine whether activation of pDCs is specifically required for the inflammatory potential of SLE ICs on monocytes, we compared CD86 and CD40 expression on monocytes in total PBMCs and then again following pDC depletion. As shown in Fig. 5A, monocytes in PBMCs were strongly activated by SLE ICs after 2 d in culture as measured by upregulation of the expression of CD86 and CD40 by flow cytometry (Fig. 5). Very similar activation of monocytes in PBMCs was observed if SLE ICs were formed with purified SLE IgG instead of using diluted patient serum (Supplementary Fig. 1) and normal serum did not upregulate CD86 or CD40 expression in any stimulation condition (data not shown ). When pDCs were depleted from PBMCs such that IFN-α was not detected in response to SLE ICs nor loxoribine (TLR7 agonist), monocytes were no longer potently activated by SLE ICs as determined by significantly lower levels of CD86 and CD40 (Fig. 5B).

Figure 5
SLE ICs upregulate monocyte CD86 and CD40 expression in PBMC cultures but increased expression requires the presence of pDCs

Consistent with these findings, we observed that SLE ICs induced high levels of cytokines and chemokines known to be produced by monocytes such as IL-1RA (same as IL-1RN in our arrays), IP-10 (CXCL10) and MCP-1 in total PBMCs, but not in pDC depleted cultures (Fig. 6A). MCP-3 induction varied depending on the donor used and IL-8 induction was not dependent on the presence of pDCs as similar levels were detected in both mock and pDC depleted cultures (Fig. 6). Using at least 3 different ICs for the multiplex and greater than 20 different ICs for TNF-α stimulation in total PBMCs, the ICs did not induce IL-1β, IL-12p40, IL-10, MIP-1α or TNF-α compared to unstimulated control cultures (data not shown). Similar to PBMC cultures, purified monocytes produced low levels of MCP-1 (average of 60 pg/ml above background) and on average, 1259 pg/ml IL-8 above background when stimulated by SLE ICs (data not shown and Fig. 6B). There was no induction of IP-10, IL-1RA, MCP-3, MIP-1α, IL-12p40, IL-10, TNF-α or IL-1β above background when ICs were added to purified monocytes (data not shown). Despite a small (~1.7-fold) increase in IL-6 mRNA expression seen in the microarray following C1q addition to ICs, this increase was not confirmed by ELISA (data not shown, 4 independent experiments).

Figure 6
pDCs are required for maximal induction IL-1RA, IP-10, MCP-1 and MCP-3, but not IL-8, in response to SLE ICs

Although pDCs were required for maximal expression of co-stimulatory molecule expression by monocytes, the addition of neutralizing antibody to IFN-α either had minimal effect or reduced CD86 and CD40 expression at most 1.6-fold and 1.4-fold, respectively, indicating that other factors in addition to IFN-α are important for monocyte activation by ICs. Together our data suggests pDCs are required for SLE ICs to efficiently stimulate the major monocyte populations (CD14+CD16 or CD14+CD16+), whereas the rare subset of CD14dim monocytes are able to respond directly to SLE ICs.


The goals of this study were several fold. We wished to identify common changes in gene expression by SLE ICs in total PBMCs, to identify changes in genes or pathways when C1q was present in ICs and to determine the extent to which SLE ICs induced common inflammatory pathways directly on monocytes. Studies were therefore performed with at least two SLE ICs and at least two different normal donor cells. The results of these studies reveal that pDCs and CD14dim monocytes are key targets of SLE ICs, that C1q influences IC activation of both of these cells and we identify multiple genes that are regulated depending upon the target cells and composition of ICs.

Experimentally, it has been shown that ICs can induce TNF-α (4042) or, more recently, IFN-α (33). In our study, addition of SLE ICs to unprimed normal PBMCs induced a dominant type I IFN pattern of gene transcription with little or no TNF-α production, consistent with the ex vivo gene signature in SLE (43, 44). When we compared genes upregulated in normal PBMCs by SLE ICs to published SLE patient peripheral blood ex vivo transcript profiles (45), we observed that 76 of the 150 genes regulated by in vitro IC exposure were represented in SLE patients’ PBMC transcriptome. These findings are therefore consistent with the idea that circulating ICs account to a significant degree for the IFN-signature observed in SLE patients’ blood cells. The lack of full concordance could be explained by the acute nature of in vitro stimulation versus chronic stimulation in vivo. In addition, certain autoantigens released during apoptosis may not be present in our freeze-thawed extract to make ICs. Another possible explanation is that DNA released from neutrophil nets can form ICs and directly stimulate TLR9 in pDCs, but neutrophils were not added in our PBMC cultures (46, 47). Whether other potent IFN inducers such as endogenous (48) or exogenous (49) virus infection contribute to type I IFN stimulation as well, remains to be determined.

ICs induced the expression of multiple genes and pathways that are implicated in the pathogenesis of SLE. For example, upregulation of nucleic acid receptors and associated adaptor molecules that are known ISGs (DDX58 (RIG-I), TRIM25, UNC93B1, IRF7, IFIHI (MDA5), MYD88), would serve as a positive feedback loop to enhance responses to ICs or other nucleic acid stimuli in SLE. SLE ICs also upregulated the expression of two recently identified anti-inflammatory molecules that are not known to be regulated by IFN-α: IL-1 family member 7 (IL1F7, also known as IL-37) 5-fold and IL-4-induced gene 1 (IL4I1) 2-fold. IL-37 exerts an anti-inflammatory effect in response to LPS stimulation and siRNA knockdown led to enhanced production of multiple pro-inflammatory cytokines (50). IL4Il inhibits T cell proliferation and an optimal Th1 response by inhibiting IFN-gamma and other inflammatory cytokines (51, 52). These genes may therefore serve in a negative feedback loop and their function would be well worth exploring in SLE patients. Other IC induced genes (peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma (PPARG), ~2-fold and RAS guanyl releasing protein 3 (RASGRP3), 1.7-fold) that are not known to be IFN inducible have been implicated in lupus susceptibility or pathogenesis. IC stimulation could potentially explain PPARG elevation in patients with active SLE (53). RASGRP3 was recently discovered to be a SLE susceptibility gene associated with the development of malar rash, discoid rash and antinuclear antibody (ANA) positivity (54, 55).

Consistent with previously published results on IFN-α suppression by C1q-ICs (14, 15), addition of C1q to ICs resulted in a marked suppression of ISGs and multiple other genes. In total, 81 previously identified type I IFN response genes were downregulated by C1q-ICs compared to ICs alone. Two prominent gene families whose expression was reduced were TNF family members and RNASEs. TNFSF13B (BAFF), TNFSF10 (TRAIL) have been implicated in SLE (56, 57) and the expression of TNFRSF21 (DR6) impacts B and T cell responses (58). Reduction in expression of these genes by C1q would therefore be predicted to be beneficial in SLE patients. In contrast, RNases are less well studied. RNASE1 (the homolog of bovine RNase A) is expressed in the pancreas, endothelial cells (59) as well as in immune cells such as activated monocytes (60). Of interest, RNASE1 secretion was shown to increase in response to extracellular RNA (but not DNA) and addition of RNase 1 or RNase2 (also known as eosinophil-derived neurotoxin (EDN)) induced activation of human monocyte-derived DCs in vitro (61). Since we observed an increase in RNASE1 gene expression with ICs alone, PBMCs may respond to exposure to RNA containing ICs by increasing RNase expression. Increased expression of RNASE2 has been observed previously in expression arrays in SLE patient PBMCs (43, 44) and also noted to be upregulated in inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis patient PBMCs (62, 63). RNASE6 has 47% amino acid sequence similarity to RNASE2 (64)and is most highly expressed in pDCs, monocytes, neutrophils and B cells (6466). Since RNASE6 was modestly upregulated by SLE ICs and strongly downregulated by C1q, future studies will be required to determine the role of this protein in the immune response. Since none of the RNASE genes were regulated in purified monocyte cultures, induction of transcription is likely controlled by inflammatory cytokines released by other immune cell types. Genes that were upregulated by C1q-ICs such as the anti-oxidant, SOD2, could also be important in the anti-inflammatory response. While our study has focused on C1q, C4 and C2 deficiency are also associated with increased risk for the development of SLE, although the risk is not as high (reviewed in (67). Preliminary data suggested that C2 was not required for inhibition of IFN-α induced by SLE ICs (15) and purified C4 protein did not inhibit IC stimulation (data not shown). In vivo it is likely that the early classical complement proteins, C1q, C2 and C4 may act in a common pathway leading to the assembly of C3bi on apoptotic cells, which we, and others, previously showed is important for the clearance of dying cells (8, 9). Since C1q deficiency is associated with a much higher penetrance of SLE, additional immune regulation effects as we have shown here, plus the importance of C1q in IC and apoptotic cell clearance are likely involved in disease pathogenesis.

Surprisingly, IC stimulation of purified total CD14+ monocytes resulted in lower changes in gene expression compared to PBMCs and little to no upregulation of CD40 or CD86. Only the monocarboxylate transporter, SLC16A10, and the neutrophil attracting chemokine, CXCL5, were induced 2-fold or greater in both donors’ monocytes. Although expression of other monocarboxylate transporters has been studied in monocytes (68), little is known of the function of SLC16A10 in these cells. CXCL5, the ligand for the chemokine receptor CXCR2, stimulates the chemotaxis of neutrophils and therefore can be implicated in the inflammatory properties of SLE ICs on monocytes. The low gene induction by SLE ICs on isolated CD14+ monocytes is consistent with the finding that pDC depletion of PBMCs resulted in very limited stimulation of monocytes as determined by co-stimulatory molecule expression. This may be explained by the much lower expression of TLR7 in monocytes as compared to pDCs (69). Experiments utilizing either addition of type I IFN to monocyte cultures as well as IFN-α neutralization in PBMCs suggested that type I IFN as well as other factors were required for full monocyte activation. A similar requirement for pDCs for stimulation of monocytes was shown by Hornung et al. (69) with the TLR9 agonist CpG. In addition, human B cells require the presence of pDCs and IFN-α for maximal stimulation by TLR7 agonists (70).

ICs are considered to be potent activators of inflammatory responses in FcγRII bearing cells of the myeloid lineage associated with the production of TNF-α (35, 36, 40, 41). Several explanations for the differences between our studies compared to some prior studies of the activating effect of ICs on whole monocytes are possible. Most used heat aggregated IgG or tetanus toxoid as ICs and/or did not exclude endotoxin contamination as a possible cause of TNF-α stimulation. ICs may also have different effects in tissues in vivo. In this context, Geissman and colleagues (17) recently identified a rare monocyte subset that in vivo is thought to patrol endothelial surfaces where they respond rapidly to microbial stimuli. When experiments were performed to examine differences in the responses of the 3 monocyte subsets, we observed that the CD14dim population did appear to be more responsive to SLE ICs as determined by upregulation of CD86 expression although the maximum TNF-α production was very low (0–60 pg/ml in 3 experiments, data not shown). Perhaps of further relevance to protection from inflammation (15), the presence of C1q in ICs favored the binding of ICs away from the CD14dim population to CD14high monocytes.

Of considerable interest, differences were noted in the response to SLE ICs between 2 different normal monocyte donors. It will be interesting to examine monocyte gene stimulation in a larger number of normal individuals as well as SLE patients in remission to see whether stable patterns are observed and whether patients can be segregated based on the response. Although we confirmed some chemokine mRNA expression changes by multiplex analysis, further work is needed to confirm changes in gene expression at the protein level. In addition, our studies have focused on IC responses in PBMCs. Future experiments to test the physiological consequences of C3b coated IC handling in whole blood where RBCs and neutrophils could play important roles will be important to determine (47, 71). In summary, these studies identify pDCs and CD14dim monocytes as the most important cell targets for SLE ICs and define genes and pathways stimulated in total PBMCs. This information will help to identify additional biomarkers and to design targeted therapies for SLE.

Supplementary Material


We thank Edward Clark, Grant Hughes for helpful discussion, Thomas Möller for assistance with cytokine multiplex analysis and Ryan Basom, Alyssa Dawson and Jeff Delrow at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Genomics Resource for microarray setup and analysis.


1This work was supported by grants from the National Institutesof Health (AR48796 and NS065933). D.M.S. was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada(NSERC) postgraduate scholarship and a Kirkland Scholarship.

3Abbreviations used: SLE, systemic lupus erythematosus; pDC, plasmacytoid dendritic cells; PBMC, peripheral blood mononuclear cells; ICs, immune complexes; mean fluorescent intensity (MFI); C1q containing immune complexes (C1q-ICs); ISGs, IFN stimulated genes; GOI, gene of interest; pDC dep, pDC depleted; FC, fold change.


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