Objective: To investigate whether interleukin-6 (IL-6) is a regulator of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) in rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Methods: Serum VEGF levels in RA patients were assayed before and after 8 weeks or 24 weeks of maintenance therapy with humanized anti-IL-6 receptor monoclonal antibody (anti-IL-6R mAb). VEGF secreted by RA synovial fibroblasts cultured in the presence of IL-6, IL-1beta, and/or tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFalpha) was measured. The inhibitory effect of anti-IL-6R mAb, recombinant IL-1 receptor antagonist (IL-1Ra), and anti-TNFalpha mAb on VEGF production was also examined.
Results: Serum VEGF levels in RA patients before anti-IL-6R mAb therapy were significantly higher than those in healthy controls (P < 0.0005). Treatment of RA patients with anti-IL-6R mAb normalized serum VEGF levels. In the in vitro study, IL-6 and IL-1beta each induced a slight amount of VEGF production in synovial cells, but TNFalpha did not. Although VEGF-inducing activity of these cytokines was not remarkable when they were added alone, IL-6 acted synergistically with IL-1beta or TNFalpha to induce VEGF production. There was no synergistic effect between IL-1beta and TNFalpha. In the presence of all of these cytokines, anti-IL-6R mAb eliminated the synergistic effect of IL-6, IL-1beta, and TNFalpha, while IL-1Ra or anti-TNFalpha mAb did not.
Conclusion: Anti-IL-6R mAb therapy reduced VEGF production in RA. IL-6 is the pivotal cytokine that induces VEGF production in synergy with IL-1beta or TNFalpha, and this may be the mechanism by which IL-6 blockade effectively suppresses VEGF production in synovial fibroblasts.