It has long been known that B cells produce autoantibodies and, thereby, contribute to the pathogenesis of many autoimmune diseases. Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), a prototypic systemic autoimmune disorder, is characterized by high circulating autoantibody titers and immune-complex deposition that can trigger inflammatory damage in multiple organs/organ systems. Although the interest in B cells in SLE has historically focused on their autoantibody production, we now appreciate that B cells have multiple autoantibody-independent roles in SLE as well. B cells can efficiently present antigen and activate T cells, they can augment T cell activation through co-stimulatory interactions, and they can produce numerous cytokines which affect inflammation, lymphogenesis, and immune regulation. Not surprisingly, B cells have become attractive therapeutic targets in SLE. With these points in mind, this review will focus on the autoantibody-dependent and autoantibody-independent roles for B cells in SLE and on therapeutic approaches that target B cells.
Antigen presentation; Autoantibodies; B cells; Co-stimulation; Cytokines; Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
Production of high-affinity pathogenic autoantibodies appears to be central to the pathogenesis of lupus. Because normal high-affinity antibodies arise from germinal centers (GCs), aberrant selection of GC B cells, caused by either failure of negative selection or enhanced positive selection by follicular helper T (TFH) cells, is a plausible explanation for these autoantibodies. Mice homozygous for the san allele of Roquin, which encodes a RING-type ubiquitin ligase, develop GCs in the absence of foreign antigen, excessive TFH cell numbers, and features of lupus. We postulated a positive selection defect in GCs to account for autoantibodies. We first demonstrate that autoimmunity in Roquinsan/san (sanroque) mice is GC dependent: deletion of one allele of Bcl6 specifically reduces the number of GC cells, ameliorating pathology. We show that Roquinsan acts autonomously to cause accumulation of TFH cells. Introduction of a null allele of the signaling lymphocyte activation molecule family adaptor Sap into the sanroque background resulted in a substantial and selective reduction in sanroque TFH cells, and abrogated formation of GCs, autoantibody formation, and renal pathology. In contrast, adoptive transfer of sanroque TFH cells led to spontaneous GC formation. These findings identify TFH dysfunction within GCs and aberrant positive selection as a pathway to systemic autoimmunity.
Neuromyelitis optica (NMO) is a rare autoimmune disorder, distinct from multiple sclerosis, causing inflammatory lesions in the optic nerves and spinal cord. An autoantibody (NMO IgG) against aquaporin-4 (AQP4), a water channel expressed on astrocytes is thought to be causative. Peripheral production of the antibody is triggered by an unknown process in genetically susceptible individuals. Anti-AQP4 antibody enters the central nervous system (CNS) when the blood brain barrier is made permeable and has high affinity for orthogonal array particles of AQP4. Like other autoimmune diseases, Th17 cells and their effector cytokines (such as interleukin 6) have been implicated in pathogenesis. AQP4 expressing peripheral organs are not affected by NMO IgG, but the antibody causes extensive astrocytic loss in specific regions of the CNS through complement mediated cytotoxicity. Demyelination occurs during the inflammatory process and is probably secondary to oligodendrocyte apoptosis subsequent to loss of trophic support from astrocytes. Ultimately, extensive axonal injury leads to severe disability. Despite rapid advances in the understanding of NMO pathogenesis, unanswered questions remain, particularly with regards to disease mechanisms in NMO IgG seronegative cases. Increasing knowledge of the molecular pathology is leading to improved treatment strategies.
pathogenesis; Devic’s disease; immunology; genetics; neuromyelitis optica; multiple sclerosis; aquaporin-4; astrocytopathy; astrocyte
B lymphocytes are the source of humoral immunity and are thus a critical component of the adaptive immune system. However, B cells can also be pathogenic and the origin of disease. Deregulated B-cell function has been implicated in several autoimmune diseases, including systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. B cells contribute to pathological immune responses through the secretion of cytokines, costimulation of T cells, antigen presentation, and the production of autoantibodies. DNA-and RNA-containing immune complexes can also induce the production of type I interferons, which further promotes the inflammatory response. B-cell depletion with the CD20 antibody rituximab has provided clinical proof of concept that targeting B cells and the humoral response can result in significant benefit to patients. Consequently, the interest in B-cell targeted therapies has greatly increased in recent years and a number of new biologics exploiting various mechanisms are now in clinical development. This review provides an overview on current developments in the area of B-cell targeted therapies by describing molecules and subpopulations that currently offer themselves as therapeutic targets, the different strategies to target B cells currently under investigation as well as an update on the status of novel therapeutics in clinical development. Emerging data from clinical trials are providing critical insight regarding the role of B cells and autoantibodies in various autoimmune conditions and will guide the development of more efficacious therapeutics and better patient selection.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is prototypic autoimmune disease characterized by the production of autoantibodies to DNA among other nuclear molecules. These antibodies can form immune complexes that promote pathogenesis by stimulating cytokine production and depositing in the kidney to instigate nephritis. The antigens that form these complexes arise from the blood nucleome, a pool of circulating macromolecules comprised of DNA, RNA and nuclear proteins released from cells. Cell death is a major source of these molecules, releasing DNA in a process that can be modeled in mice by the administration of cells killed ex vivo. In the mouse model, the appearance of blood DNA requires macrophages and differs between males and females. This finding raises the possibility that augmented levels of extracellular DNA and other nuclear antigens can contribute to the increased frequency of SLE in females. Extracellular DNA can occur in both a soluble and particulate form, with microparticles generated in vitro displaying antigenically active DNA. Together, these findings suggest that cell death is an important event in lupus pathogenesis and can provide a supply of blood DNA essential for immune complex formation.
systemic lupus erythematosus; immune complexes; DNA; nucleome; apoptosis; macrophages
IL-6–producing B cells contribute to EAE pathology and possibly human MS, whereas ablation of B cell IL-6 is associated with a reduced Th17 response.
B cells have paradoxical roles in autoimmunity, exerting both pathogenic and protective effects. Pathogenesis may be antibody independent, as B cell depletion therapy (BCDT) leads to amelioration of disease irrespective of autoantibody ablation. However, the mechanisms of pathogenesis are poorly understood. We demonstrate that BCDT alleviates central nervous system autoimmunity through ablation of IL-6–secreting pathogenic B cells. B cells from mice with experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE) secreted elevated levels of IL-6 compared with B cells from naive controls, and mice with a B cell–specific IL-6 deficiency showed less severe disease than mice with wild-type B cells. Moreover, BCDT ameliorated EAE only in mice with IL-6–sufficient B cells. This mechanism of pathogenesis may also operate in multiple sclerosis (MS) because B cells from MS patients produced more IL-6 than B cells from healthy controls, and this abnormality was normalized with B cell reconstitution after Rituximab treatment. This suggests that BCDT improved disease progression, at least partly, by eliminating IL-6–producing B cells in MS patients. Taking these data together, we conclude that IL-6 secretion is a major mechanism of B cell–driven pathogenesis in T cell–mediated autoimmune disease such as EAE and MS.
The role of autoantibodies in the pathogenesis of multiple sclerosis (MS) and other demyelinating diseases is controversial, in part because widely used western blotting and ELISA methods either do not permit the detection of conformation-sensitive antibodies or do not distinguish them from conformation-independent antibodies. We developed a sensitive assay based on self-assembling radiolabeled tetramers that allows discrimination of antibodies against folded or denatured myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein (MOG) by selective unfolding of the antigen domain. The tetramer radioimmunoassay (RIA) was more sensitive for MOG autoantibody detection than other methodologies, including monomer-based RIA, ELISA or fluorescent-activated cell sorting (FACS). Autoantibodies from individuals with acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM) selectively bound the folded MOG tetramer, whereas sera from mice with experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis induced with MOG peptide immunoprecipitated only the unfolded tetramer. MOG-specific autoantibodies were identified in a subset of ADEM but only rarely in adult-onset MS cases, indicating that MOG is a more prominent target antigen in ADEM than MS.
For years, investigators have sought to prove that myelin antigens are the primary targets of autoimmunity in multiple sclerosis (MS). Recent experiments have begun to challenge this assumption, particularly when studying the neurodegenerative phase of MS. T-lymphocyte responses to myelin antigens have been extensively studied, and are likely early contributors to the pathogenesis of MS. Antibodies to myelin antigens have a much more inconstant association with the pathogenesis of MS. Recent studies indicate that antibodies to non-myelin antigens such as neurofilaments, neurofascin, RNA binding proteins and potassium channels may contribute to the pathogenesis of MS. The purpose of this review is to analyze recent studies that examine the role that autoantibodies to non-myelin antigens might play in the pathogenesis of MS.
Multiple sclerosis; Neurodegeneration; Heterogeneous nuclear ribonucleoprotein A1 (hnRNP A1); Autoimmunity; Spastic paraparesis; RNA binding protein; Human T-lymphotropic virus type 1 (HTLV-1)
Chronic rejection is the primary cause of long-term failure of transplanted organs and is often viewed as an antibody-dependent process. Chronic rejection, however, is also observed in mice and humans with no detectable circulating alloantibodies, suggesting that antibody-independent pathways may also contribute to pathogenesis of transplant rejection. Here, we have provided direct evidence that chronic rejection of vascularized heart allografts occurs in the complete absence of antibodies, but requires the presence of B cells. Mice that were deficient for antibodies but not B cells experienced the same chronic allograft vasculopathy (CAV), which is a pathognomonic feature of chronic rejection, as WT mice; however, mice that were deficient for both B cells and antibodies were protected from CAV. B cells contributed to CAV by supporting splenic lymphoid architecture, T cell cytokine production, and infiltration of T cells into graft vessels. In chimeric mice, in which B cells were present but could not present antigen, both T cell responses and CAV were markedly reduced. These findings establish that chronic rejection can occur in the complete absence of antibodies and that B cells contribute to this process by supporting T cell responses through antigen presentation and maintenance of lymphoid architecture.
Peripheral blood lymphocytes from normal individuals and patients with autoimmune abnormalities such as insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus and thyroiditis were infected with Epstein-Barr virus, and the culture supernatants were tested for autoantibodies that reacted with normal tissues. Between 58 and 86% of Epstein-Barr virus-transformed cultures produced immunoglobulin M antibodies, and between 9 and 24% of the transformed cultures produced immunoglobulin G antibodies that reacted with normal tissues. Ten Epstein-Barr virus-transformed clones secreting human immunoglobulin M monoclonal autoantibodies were isolated. Four of these monoclonal autoantibodies were studied in depth and found to react with antigens in multiple organs, including thyroid, pancreas, stomach, smooth muscle, and nerves. It is concluded that Epstein-Barr virus can trigger the production of autoantibodies without infecting the target cells to which the autoantibodies are directed.
We have studied 19 S107 heavy chain variable region gene (VH11)-encoded monoclonal antibodies from NZBWF1 mice. These studies show that a single VH gene can encode both antibodies to foreign antigens (anti- phosphorylcholine) and to self antigens (anti-double-stranded DNA) in the same animal. All of the anti-DNA antibodies contain many somatic mutations compared with the relevant germline genes. Since the anti-DNA antibodies were extensively somatically mutated and had undergone isotype switching, the response seems to be T cell dependent. While some of the antibodies appear to be the products of an antigen-driven and antigen-selected response, a number of characteristics of the antibodies suggest that forces other than antigen are contributing to the stimulation and selection of this response.
B lymphocytes contribute to physiological immunity through organogenesis of secondary lymphoid organs, presentation of antigen to T cells, production of antibodies, and secretion of cytokines. Their role in several autoimmune diseases, mainly as producers of pathogenic antibodies, is also well known. However, certain subsets of B cells are emerging as the important regulatory cell populations in both mouse and human. The regulatory functions of B cells have been demonstrated in a variety of mouse models of autoimmune diseases including collagen-induced arthritis (CIA), experiment autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), anterior chamber-associated immune deviation (ACAID), diabetes, contact hypersensitivity (CHS), and intestinal mucosal inflammation. Accumulating evidence from both mouse and human studies confirms the existence of regulatory B cells, and is beginning to define their mechanisms of action. In this article, we first review the history of B cells with regulatory function in autoimmune diseases, and summarize the current understanding about the characterizations of such B-cell subsets. We then discuss the possible regulatory mechanisms of B cells, and specifically define the role of regulatory B cells in immune homeostasis in the intestine.
Regulatory B cells; immunoregulation; autoimmune diseases; molecular mechanism; mucosal homeostasis
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a complex autoimmune disease involving multiple organs. The disease is characterized by the production of pathogenic autoantibodies to DNA and certain nuclear antigens, chronic inflammation, and immune dysregulation. Genetic studies involving SLE patients and mouse models have indicated that multiple lupus susceptible genes contribute to the disease phenotype. Notably, the development of SLE in patients and in certain mouse models exhibits a strong sex bias. In addition, several lines of evidence indicates that activation of interferon-α (IFN-α) signaling in immune cells and alterations in the expression of certain immunomodulatory cytokines contribute to lupus pathogenesis. Studies have implicated factors, such as the X chromosomal gene dosage effect and the sex hormones, in gender bias in SLE. However, the molecular mechanisms remain unclear. Additionally, it remains unclear whether these factors influence the “IFN-signature,” which is associated with SLE. In this regard, a mutually positive regulatory feedback loop between IFNs and estrogen receptor-α (ERα) has been identified in immune cells. Moreover, studies indicate that the expression of certain IFN-inducible p200-family proteins that act as innate immune sensors for cytosolic DNA is differentially regulated by sex hormones. In this review, we discuss how the modulation of the expression of the p200-family proteins in immune cells by sex hormones and IFNs contributes to sex bias in SLE. An improved understanding of the regulation and roles of the p200-family proteins in immune cells is critical to understand lupus pathogenesis as well as response (or the lack of it) to various therapies.
Type I interferons (IFNs) are a family of cytokines involved in the defense against viral infections that play a key role in the activation of both the innate and adaptive immune system. IFNs both directly and indirectly enhance the capacity of B lymphocytes to respond to viral challenge and produce cytotoxic and neutralizing antibodies. However, prolonged type I IFN exposure is not always beneficial to the host. If not regulated properly IFN can drive autoantibody production as well as other parameters of systemic autoimmune disease. Type I IFNs impact B-cell function through a variety of mechanisms, including effects on receptor engagement, Toll-like receptor expression, cell migration, antigen presentation, cytokine responsiveness, cytokine production, survival, differentiation and class-switch recombination. Type I IFNs are also cytotoxic for a variety of cell types and thereby contribute to the accumulation of cell debris that serves as a potential source for autoantigens. Type I IFN engagement of a variety of accessory cells further promotes B-cell survival and activation, as exemplified by the capacity of type I IFNs to increase the level of B-cell survival factors, such as B lymphocyte stimulator, produced by dendritic cells. Therefore, it is not surprising that the loss of expression of the type I IFN receptor can have dramatic effects on the production of autoantibodies and on the clinical features of systemic autoimmune diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus.
type I IFN; B cell; autoimmunity; SLE
B cells are recognized as main actors in the autoimmune process. Autoreactive B cells can arise in the bone marrow or in the periphery and, if not properly inhibited or eliminated, can lead to autoimmune diseases through several mechanisms: autoantibody production and immune complex formation, cytokine and chemokine synthesis, antigen presentation, T cell activation, and ectopic lymphogenesis. The availability of agents capable of depleting B cells (that is, anti-CD20 and anti-CD22 monoclonal antibodies) or targeting B cell survival factors (atacicept and belimumab) opens new perspectives in the treatment of diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis.
B cells contribute to autoimmunity both as secretors of pathogenic antibodies and through the activation of autoreactive T cells. B cells and antibodies acquire higher affinity to self-antigen through a process known as immunoglobulin hypermutation or SHM. The contribution of SHM to pathogenic antibody development in lupus has been established in various autoimmune mouse models and by examining antibodies from patients. However, its role in the antibody-independent contribution of B cells to autoimmunity has not been examined. Herein, we generate lupus-prone MRL/lpr mice with a limited IgM-only B cell repertoire, no secreted antibodies and no SHM. This enabled us to isolate the role of somatic hypermutation in B cell-mediated autoimmunity and found that SHM-deficiency correlated with a reduction in autoreactive B cells, a decrease in T cell activation and in kidney lymphocytic infiltration. These data establish AID as an important contributor to the antibody-independent role of B cells in autoimmunity.
somatic hypermutation; AID; B cells; T cells; lupus
B cell tolerance to many self-proteins is actively maintained by either purging self-reactive B receptors through clonal deletion and receptor editing, or by functional silencing known as anergy. However, these processes are clearly incomplete as B cell-driven autoimmune diseases still occur. The significance of B cells in two such diseases, rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus, is highlighted by the ameliorative effects of B cell depletion. It remains to be determined, however, whether the key role of the B cell in autoimmune disease is autoantibody production or another antibody-independent function.
Multiple elements are known to participate in ischemia reperfusion (I/R)-mediated tissue injury. Amongst them, B cells have been shown to contribute by the production of antibodies that bind to ischemic cells and fix complement. It is currently unknown whether B cells participate through antibody-independent mechanisms in the pathogenesis of I/R. In a mesenteric I/R model we found that B cells infiltrate the injured intestine of normal and autoimmune mice 2 hours after reperfusion is established. B cell depletion protected mice from the development of I/R-mediated intestinal damage. The protection conferred by B cell depletion was significantly greater in MRL/lpr mice. Finally, we show that ischemic tissue expressed the B cell-attractant CXCL13 and infiltrating B cells expressed the corresponding receptor CXCR5. Our data grants B cells an antibody-independent role in the pathogenesis of intestinal I/R and suggests that B cells accumulate in the injured tissue in response to the chemokine CXCL13.
B cell; CXCL13; inflammation; ischemia/reperfusion
Antibodies are a vital part of the armamentarium of the adaptive immune system for the fine-tuning of the recognition and response to foreign threats. However, in health there are some types of antibodies that instead recognize self-antigens and these contribute to the enhancement of primitive innate functions. This repertoire of natural IgM antibodies is postulated to have been selected during immune evolution for their contributions to critical immunoregulatory and housekeeping properties. The clearance of dying cells is one of the most essential responsibilities of the immune system, which is required to prevent uncontrolled inflammation and autoimmunity. In the murine immune system, natural IgM antibodies that recognize apoptotic cells have been shown to enhance the phagocytic clearance of dead and dying cells and to suppress innate immune signaling pathways. In the mouse, natural IgM are often the products of B-1 cell clones that arise during immune development without an absolute requirement for exogenous antigenic stimulation. In patients with systemic lupus erythematosus, IgM autoantibodies, which bind to neo-epitopes on apoptotic cells, have been demonstrated to be present at significantly higher levels in patients with lower disease activity and with less severe organ damage. While certain specificities of IgM autoantibodies correlate with protection from lupus renal disease, others may convey protective properties from lupus-associated atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. New and unexpected insights into the functional roles of IgM antibodies are still emerging, especially regarding the functions of natural antibodies. Herein, we review recent progress in our understanding of the potential roles of natural IgM autoantibodies in the regulation of immune homeostasis and for protection from autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.
B-1 cells; autoreactive antibodies; autoimmune disease; clearance of apoptotic cells; immune homeostasis; autoantibody; inflammation
The pathogenesis of Crohn's disease (CD) and ulcerative colitis (UC), the two
main forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), is still unclear, but both
autoimmune and immune-mediated phenomena are involved. Autoimmune
phenomena include the presence of serum and mucosal autoantibodies against
intestinal epithelial cells in either form of IBD, and against human tropomyosin
fraction five selectively in UC. In addition, perinuclear antineutrophil cytoplasmic
antibodies (pANCA) are common in UC, whereas antibodies against Saccharomyces
cerevisiae (ASCA) are frequently found in CD. Immune-mediate phenomena
include a variety of abnormalities of humoral and cell-mediated immunity, and
a generalized enhanced reactivity against intestinal bacterial antigens in both CD
and UC. It is currently believed that loss of tolerance against the indigenous enteric
flora is the central event in IBD pathogenesis. Various complementary factors
probably contribute to the loss of tolerance to commensal bacteria in IBD. They
include defects in regulatory T-cell function, excessive stimulation of mucosal
dendritic cells, infections or variants of proteins critically involved in bacterial
antigen recognition, such as the products of CD-associated
Antibodies that react with self-molecules occur in healthy individuals and are referred to as natural antibodies or autoantibodies. Natural autoantibodies are mainly IgM, are encoded by unmutated V(D)J genes and display a moderate affinity for self-antigens. They provide a first line of defense against infections, probably serve housekeeping functions and contribute to the homeostasis of the immune system. By contrast, high-affinity, somatically mutated IgG autoantibodies reflect a pathologic process whereby homeostatic pathways related to cell clearance, antigen-receptor signaling or cell effector functions are disturbed. In some autoimmune disorders, autoantibodies might be present before disease onset, show remarkable specificity and serve as biomarkers providing an opportunity for diagnosis and therapeutic intervention. In organ-specific autoimmune diseases, such as myasthenia gravis or pemphigus, autoantibodies directly bind to and injure target organs. In systemic autoimmune diseases, autoantibodies react with free molecules, such as phospholipids, as well as cell surface and nucleoprotein antigens, forming pathogenic antigen–antibody (immune) complexes. These autoantibodies injure tissues and organs through engagement of FcγR activation of complement as well as internalization and activation of Toll-like receptors. Activation of intracellular Toll-like receptors in plasmacytoid dendritic cells leads to the production of type I interferon, whereas engagement of intracellular Toll-like receptors on antigen-presenting cells stimulates cell activation and the production of other inflammatory cytokines. Thus, immune complexes might perpetuate a positive feedback loop amplifying inflammatory responses.
apoptosis; autoantibody; class switching; interferon; somatic hypermutation
The role of autoantibodies in the etiology of autoimmune diseases remains unclear. However, an examination of the sequences of these autoantibodies can be informative. Antibody sequences that violate constraints normally imposed during ontogeny and during development point to a failure of regulation. The existence of clonally related sequences indicates that production of these antibodies may frequently be driven by self-antigen. A better understanding of the mechanisms that normally constrain the composition of the antibody repertoire and of the nature of the inciting and/or driving antigens may yield new insights into both the pathogenesis and potential treatment of these crippling diseases.
autoantibody; B cell; development; immunoglobulin genes; sequence analysis
B-cells can contribute to the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases not only through auto-antibody secretion but also via cytokine production. Therapeutic depletion of B-cells influences the functions and maintenance of various T-cell subsets. The mechanisms governing the functional heterogeneity of B-cell subsets as cytokine-producing cells are poorly understood. B-cells can differentiate into two functionally polarized effectors, one (B-effector-1-cells) producing a Th-1-like cytokine pattern and the other (Be2) producing a Th-2-like pattern. IL-12 and IFN-γ play a key role in Be1 polarization, but the initial trigger of Be1 commitment is unclear. Type-I-interferons are produced early in the immune response and prime several processes involved in innate and adaptive responses. Here, we report that IFN-α triggers a signaling cascade in resting human naive B-cells, involving STAT4 and T-bet, two key IFN-γ gene imprinting factors. IFN-α primed naive B-cells for IFN-γ production and increased IFN-γ gene responsiveness to IL-12. IFN-γ continues this polarization by re-inducing T-bet and up-regulating IL-12Rβ2 expression. IFN-α and IFN-γ therefore pave the way for the action of IL-12. These results point to a coordinated action of IFN-α, IFN-γ and IL-12 in Be1 polarization of naive B-cells, and may provide new insights into the mechanisms by which type-I-interferons favor autoimmunity.
Basophils are of interest in immunology due to their ability to produce a Th2-signature cytokine, IL-4, following activation. New understanding of the role of basophils in immunity shows novel functions at a cellular level through which basophils influence adaptive immunity. This review summarizes new advances in basophil biology and discusses new roles for basophils in human disease, especially in the mediation of the pathogenesis of lupus nephritis. Recently, basophils have been shown to contribute to self-reactive antibody production in systemic lupus erythematosus and may enhance pre-existing loss of B cell tolerance, suggesting that basophils, IL-4 and IgE mediate the pathogenesis of lupus nephritis by promoting the Th2 environment and activating autoreactive B cells. In addition to envisaging exciting therapeutic prospects, these novel findings open the way for the study of basophils in other autoimmune and renal diseases.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease characterized by multiple genetic risk factors, high levels of interferon alpha (IFN-α), and the production of autoantibodies against components of the cell nucleus. Interferon regulatory factor 5 (IRF5) is a transcription factor which induces the transcription of IFN-α and other cytokines, and genetic variants of IRF5 have been strongly linked to SLE pathogenesis. IRF5 functions downstream of Toll-like receptors and other microbial pattern-recognition receptors, and immune complexes made up of SLE-associated autoantibodies seem to function as a chronic endogenous stimulus to this pathway. In this paper, we discuss the physiologic role of IRF5 in immune defense and the ways in which IRF5 variants may contribute to the pathogenesis of human SLE. Recent data regarding the role of IRF5 in both serologic autoimmunity and the overproduction of IFN-α in human SLE are summarized. These data support a model in which SLE-risk variants of IRF5 participate in a “feed-forward” mechanism, predisposing to SLE-associated autoantibody formation, and subsequently facilitating IFN-α production downstream of Toll-like receptors stimulated by immune complexes composed of these autoantibodies.