Objective: There is an urgent need for biomarkers with which to monitor disease activity in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). We recently showed that abnormal levels of C4d, an activation-derived fragment of complement component C4, are deposited on the surface of erythrocytes from patients with SLE. This study focused on reticulocytes, the youngest and shortest-lived erythrocytes (lifespan 24-48 hours), with the objective of testing our hypothesis that when reticulocytes emerge from the bone marrow, they are immediately exposed to and acquire C4d at levels proportionate to the extent of complement activation at that time, thereby reflecting disease activity in SLE.
Methods: We conducted a cross-sectional study of 156 patients with SLE, 140 patients with other diseases, and 159 healthy controls. Levels of C4d on the surface of reticulocytes were examined using a 2-color flow cytometric assay. The results were analyzed for correlations with SLE disease activity.
Results: A wide range of increased levels of reticulocyte C4d was specifically detected in SLE patients. These levels fluctuated in SLE patients and correlated with clinical disease activity, as determined by the Safety of Estrogens in Lupus Erythematosus: National Assessment (SELENA) version of the Systemic Lupus Erythematosus Disease Activity Index (SLEDAI) and the Systemic Lupus Activity Measure (SLAM). Specifically, in cross-sectional analyses, patients with reticulocyte C4d levels in the highest quartile compared with those in the lowest quartile had significantly higher SELENA-SLEDAI (P = 0.00002) and SLAM (P = 0.02) scores. Longitudinal observation demonstrated that the reticulocyte C4d levels changed in relation to the clinical course in individual patients.
Conclusion: These findings support our hypothesis that C4d-bearing reticulocytes may serve as biomarkers of disease activity in patients with SLE.