In an attempt elucidate the role of autoimmune processes in the pathogenesis of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) we investigated the T cell responses to two autoantigens targeted by autoantibodies of patients with RA, (i) the heterogeneous nuclear ribonucleoprotein (hnRNP) A2/RA33 and (ii) filaggrin which is one of the target structures recognized by anti-citrulline antibodies.
Stimulation assays were performed with peripheral blood mononuclear cells of 50 RA patients, 20 patients with osteoarthritis and 21 healthy control individuals using recombinant hnRNP-A2/RA33 as well as some fragments thereof and recombinant filaggrin both in unmodified and citrullinated form. Antigen-specific T cell clones (TCC) were obtained by cultivating T cell lines in the presence of antigen and IL-2 followed by limiting-dilution cloning.
Proliferative responses to hnRNP-A2/RA33 were seen in 60% of the RA patients with a mean stimulation index (SI) of 3.5 ± 2.8 and were significantly higher than those observed in the control group (mean SI=1.7 ± 1, P < 0.00005). There was no correlation with the presence of anti-A2/RA33 autoantibodies nor with MHC genes, although more than 60% of the responsive patients carried the shared epitope. Results obtained with recombinant fragments indicated a major T cell epitope to be located in the N-terminal first RNA binding domain of the protein. Anti-A2/RA33 specific TCC (n = 16) derived from RA patients were almost exclusively CD4?, whereas only 7 of 12 TCC derived from controls showed this phenotype, and secreted high amounts of IFNg upon antigen stimulation as did all TCC derived from controls. Proliferative responses to filaggrin in either form were seen in only 25% of the RA patients tested and did not differ from those observed in the control group indicating that filaggrin-reactive T cells do presumably not drive the autoantibody response to citrullinated antigens.
Taken together, a Th1 type autoimmune response to hnRNP-A2/RA33 was commonly observed in RA patients suggesting this nuclear protein to constitute a major T cell autoantigen which might be fuelling one of the pathological autoimmune reactions that drive the destructive processes effective in RA.