Clinical trials have indicated that immunoablation followed by autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (ASCT) has the potential to induce clinical remission in patients with refractory systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), but the mechanisms have remained unclear. We now report the results of a single-center prospective study of long-term immune reconstitution after ASCT in 7 patients with SLE. The clinical remissions observed in these patients are accompanied by the depletion of autoreactive immunologic memory, reflected by the disappearance of pathogenic anti-double-stranded DNA (dsDNA) antibodies and protective antibodies in serum and a fundamental resetting of the adaptive immune system. The latter comprises recurrence of CD31(+)CD45RA(+)CD4(+) T cells (recent thymic emigrants) with a doubling in absolute numbers compared with age-matched healthy controls at the 3-year follow-up (P = .016), the regeneration of thymic-derived FoxP3(+) regulatory T cells, and normalization of peripheral T-cell receptor (TCR) repertoire usage. Likewise, responders exhibited normalization of the previously disturbed B-cell homeostasis with numeric recovery of the naive B-cell compartment within 1 year after ASCT. These data are the first to demonstrate that both depletion of the autoreactive immunologic memory and a profound resetting of the adaptive immune system are required to reestablish self-tolerance in SLE.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT00742300.