Background: Chronic allograft rejection manifested as bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome (BOS) is the leading cause of late death after lung transplantation. Although increasing evidence suggests an association between anti-human leukocyte antigens (HLA) antibodies and chronic rejection of kidney or heart allografts, the clinical significance of anti-HLA antibodies in lung recipients is less clear, especially in previously unsensitized recipients. The use of flow cytometry based panel reactive antibody (flow-PRA) provides a highly sensitive means to identify the development of de novo anti-HLA antibodies in lung recipients.
Methods: Flow-PRA testing was used to analyze the pre- and posttransplant sera in stable BOS free lung recipients who survived at least 6 months. Patients without prior sensitization as defined by a negative pretransplant flow-PRA were analyzed posttransplant for the presence of anti-HLA antibodies by flow-PRA. A proportional hazards model was used to determine the impact of anti-HLA antibody on BOS risk.
Results: Sera from 90 recipients at Duke University with negative pretransplant flow-PRA were tested by flow-PRA at various time points after transplant. Sera from 11% (10/90) of recipients were found to contain anti-HLA antibodies detectable by flow-PRA. Nine patients (90%) developed anti-HLA antibodies specific for donor antigens, and one patient developed anti-HLA class II antibodies, not specific to donor antigens. Among the nine patients with donor antigen specific antibodies, flow-PRA specificity analysis demonstrated eight were specific for class II antigens and one for class I antigens. In a multivariate model that controls for other BOS risk factors, a positive posttransplant flow-PRA was significantly associated with BOS grades 1,2, or 3 (hazard ratios [HR] 3.19; 95% confidence interval [CI]: 1.41-7.12, P=0.005) and BOS grade 2 or 3 (HR 4.08; 95% CI: 1.66-10.04, P=0.002). Four patients with de novo anti-HLA antibodies died during follow-up; all four had BOS. Among BOS patients, the presence of anti-HLA antibodies was associated with a significantly worse survival (P =0.05, log-rank test).
Conclusions: Although uncommon, previously unsensitized lung transplant recipients can develop anti-HLA antibodies to donor class II antigens. The development of de novo anti-HLA antibodies significantly increases the risk for BOS, independent of other posttransplant events. Furthermore, de novo anti-HLA antibodies identify BOS patients with significantly worse survival. Additional studies are needed to determine if class II-directed anti-HLA antibodies contribute mechanistically to the chronic rejection process in lung recipients.