Background: Discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) is a scarring disease. Although the scarring and deformity may affect any part of the body, such changes have been reported to be most obvious on the face and scalp. The pathogenesis behind this scarring process is not well understood. Once lesions have scarred, recurrent disease tends to occur at the edge of the scarred lesions but not within them.
Objectives: The fact that inflammation in DLE generally involves the bulge area of the follicles raises the possibility that damage to the stem cells of the bulge region may be one process leading to the permanent loss of follicles. The aim of this study was to investigate the role of the hair follicle stem cells which reside in the bulge region in the scarring process in cutaneous lupus erythematosus (CLE).
Methods: We studied the reactivity of an antibody to the CD8 antigen (C8/144B), which recognizes cytokeratin (CK) 15 and preferentially immunostains hair follicle stem cells without staining the remaining hair follicle, on skin biopsies (scalp and body lesions) from patients with CLE (36 with discoid lesions and 10 with subacute lesions). Normal scalp and body biopsy specimens served as controls. The correlation between the extent of the cytotoxic inflammatory cell infiltrate (CD8+) and the presence of stem cells was investigated. Results were analysed semiquantitatively.
Results: The expression of CK15 in hair follicle stem cells was variable in the DLE lesions; there was normal to moderate CK15 expression at the bulge region of hair follicles when surrounded by mild or moderate inflammatory infiltrate (CD8+), but in cases of severe inflammation, CK15 expression was weak or absent.
Conclusions: The bulge region appears to be involved in this disease as part of a broader involvement of the hair follicles; it is secondarily affected by the surrounding inflammatory cell infiltrate. Expression of C8/144B diminished and was then absent, indicating either damage to stem cells or differentiation to help in the repair process. Damage to follicular stem cells may help to explain the irreversible alopecia and the scarring process which characterize this disease.