Natural killer cell dysfunction is a distinguishing feature of systemic onset juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and macrophage activation syndrome

Arthritis Res Ther. 2005;7(1):R30-7. doi: 10.1186/ar1453. Epub 2004 Nov 10.


Macrophage activation syndrome (MAS) has been reported in association with many rheumatic diseases, most commonly in systemic juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (sJRA). Clinically, MAS is similar to hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), a genetic disorder with absent or depressed natural killer (NK) function. We have previously reported that, as in HLH, patients with MAS have profoundly decreased NK activity, suggesting that this abnormality might be relevant to the pathogenesis of the syndrome. Here we examined the extent of NK dysfunction across the spectrum of diseases that comprise juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA). Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) were collected from patients with pauciarticular (n = 4), polyarticular (n = 16), and systemic (n = 20) forms of JRA. NK cytolytic activity was measured after co-incubation of PBMC with the NK-sensitive K562 cell line. NK cells (CD56+/T cell receptor [TCR]-alphabeta-), NK T cells (CD56+/TCR-alphabeta+), and CD8+ T cells were also assessed for perforin and granzyme B expression by flow cytometry. Overall, NK cytolytic activity was significantly lower in patients with sJRA than in other JRA patients and controls. In a subgroup of patients with predominantly sJRA, NK cell activity was profoundly decreased: in 10 of 20 patients with sJRA and in only 1 of 20 patients with other JRA, levels of NK activity were below two standard deviations of pediatric controls (P = 0.002). Some decrease in perforin expression in NK cells and cytotoxic T lymphocytes was seen in patients within each of the JRA groups with no statistically significant differences. There was a profound decrease in the proportion of circulating CD56bright NK cells in three sJRA patients, a pattern similar to that previously observed in MAS and HLH. In conclusion, a subgroup of patients with JRA who have not yet had an episode of MAS showed decreased NK function and an absence of circulating CD56bright population, similar to the abnormalities observed in patients with MAS and HLH. This phenomenon was particularly common in the systemic form of JRA, a clinical entity strongly associated with MAS.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Arthritis, Juvenile / blood
  • Arthritis, Juvenile / classification
  • Arthritis, Juvenile / immunology*
  • Autoimmune Diseases / blood
  • Autoimmune Diseases / immunology*
  • CD56 Antigen / analysis
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes / immunology
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Coculture Techniques
  • Cytotoxicity Tests, Immunologic
  • Cytotoxicity, Immunologic
  • Female
  • Flow Cytometry
  • Granzymes
  • Humans
  • Immunologic Deficiency Syndromes / blood
  • Immunologic Deficiency Syndromes / immunology*
  • K562 Cells / immunology
  • Killer Cells, Natural / chemistry
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • Leukocytes, Mononuclear / immunology
  • Lymphohistiocytosis, Hemophagocytic / immunology
  • Macrophage Activation*
  • Male
  • Membrane Glycoproteins / analysis
  • Perforin
  • Pore Forming Cytotoxic Proteins
  • Serine Endopeptidases / analysis
  • Syndrome


  • CD56 Antigen
  • Membrane Glycoproteins
  • Pore Forming Cytotoxic Proteins
  • Perforin
  • GZMB protein, human
  • Granzymes
  • Serine Endopeptidases