OBJECTIVE: In approximately 25% of synovial tissues from rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients, infiltrates of T cells, B cells, and follicular dendritic cells (FDCs) are spatially organized into structures resembling lymph nodes with germinal centers. The remainder of the tissues lack FDCs and show either a diffuse or an aggregated T cell and B cell infiltrate. To gain more insight into this specific disease process, we sought to identify the genes expressed in RA tissues with ectopic lymphoid structures.
METHODS: Gene expression profiling of RA synovial tissues was determined by complementary DNA microarray analysis and quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction. The presence of lymphoid follicles and localization of interleukin-7 (IL-7) in synovial tissue sections was determined by immunofluorescence staining using specific antibodies.
RESULTS: Findings of gene expression analysis confirmed previous reports that tissues with lymphoid structures showed elevated expression of CXCL13, CCL21, CCR7, and lymphotoxin alpha and beta messenger RNA. In addition, the tissues also showed enhanced expression of the chemokines CXCL12 and CCL19 and the associated receptors CXCR4 and CXCR5, which are important for the attraction of T cells, B cells, and dendritic cells. Pathway analysis revealed increased expression of genes involved in JAK/STAT signaling, T cell- and B cell-specific pathways, Fcepsilon receptor type I signaling in mast cells, and IL-7 signal transduction in the tissues with ectopic lymphoid follicles, accompanied by increased expression of IL-7 receptor alpha (IL-7Ralpha)/IL-2Rgamma chains and IL-7. Protein expression of IL-7 in RA tissues was localized within fibroblast-like synoviocytes, macrophages, and blood vessels and was colocalized with extracellular matrix structures around the B cell follicles.
CONCLUSION: Activation of the IL-7 pathway may play an important role in lymphoid neogenesis, analogous to its role in the development of normal lymphoid tissue.