In order to identify pathogenic correlates of refractory rheumatoid arthritis (RA), antibodies against anti-cyclic citrullinated protein (ACPAs) were investigated in RA patients in whom the dysregulated immune system had been ablated by high-dose chemotherapy (HDC) and autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT). Six patients with refractory RA were extensively characterized in terms of levels of total immunoglobulins, RA-specific autoantibodies (ACPAs and rheumatoid factor) and antibodies against rubella, tetanus toxoid (TT) and phosphorylcholine before and after HDC plus HSCT. Additionally, the avidity of ACPAs was measured before and after treatment and compared with the avidity of TT antibodies following repeated immunizations. Synovial biopsies were obtained by arthroscopy before HDC plus HSCT, and analyzed by immunohistochemistry. In the three patients with clinically long-lasting responses to HDC plus HSCT (median 423 days), significant reductions in ACPA-IgG levels after therapy were observed (median level dropped from 215 to 34 arbitrary units/ml; P = 0.05). In contrast, stable ACPA-IgG levels were observed in three patients who relapsed shortly after HDC plus HSCT (median of 67 days). Clinical responders had ACPA-IgG of lower avidity (r = 0.75; P = 0.08) and higher degree of inflammation histologically (r = 0.73; P = 0.09). Relapse (after 38 to 530 days) in all patients was preceded by rising levels of low avidity ACPA-IgG (after 30 to 388 days), in contrast to the stable titres of high avidity TT antibodies. In conclusion, humoral autoimmune responses were differentially modulated by immunoablative therapy in patients with synovial inflammation and low avidity ACPA-IgG autoantibodies as compared with patients with high levels of high avidity ACPA-IgG. The distinct clinical disease course after immunoablative therapy based on levels and avidity of ACPA-IgG indicates that refractory RA is not a single disease entity.