Objective: To investigate the fate of apoptotic cells in the germinal centers (GCs) of patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).
Methods: Lymph node biopsy specimens obtained from 7 SLE patients with benign follicular hyperplasia, 5 non-SLE patients with benign follicular hyperplasia (non-SLE), 5 patients with malignant follicular lymphoma, and 3 patients with dermatopathic lymphadenitis were stained with monoclonal antibodies against macrophages (CD68) and follicular dendritic cells (CR2/CD21). TUNEL staining and transmission electron microscopy were performed to detect apoptotic cells. Confocal microscopy was used to evaluate the in vivo capacity of tingible body macrophages to remove apoptotic cell material.
Results: In a subgroup of patients with SLE, apoptotic cells accumulated in the GCs of the lymph nodes. The number of tingible body macrophages, which usually contained engulfed apoptotic nuclei, was significantly reduced in these patients. In contrast to what was observed in all controls, TUNEL-positive apoptotic material from SLE patients was observed to be directly associated with the surfaces of follicular dendritic cells (FDCs).
Conclusion: Our findings suggest that in a sub-group of SLE patients, apoptotic cells are not properly cleared by tingible body macrophages of the GCs. Consequently, nuclear autoantigens bind to FDCs and may thus provide survival signals for autoreactive B cells. This action may override an important control mechanism for B cell development, resulting in the loss of tolerance for nuclear antigens.