Introduction: In the present study we evaluated changes in the B cell phenotype in peripheral blood and bone marrow (BM) of patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) following anti-CD20 treatment using rituximab.
Methods: Blood and BM samples were obtained from 37 patients with RA prior to rituximab treatment. Ten of these patients were resampled 1 month following rituximab, 14 patients after 3 months and the remaining 13 patients were included in the long-term follow up. B cell populations were characterized by CD27/IgD/CD38/CD24 expression.
Results: One and three months following rituximab BM retained up to 30% of B cells while circulation was totally depleted of B cells. Analysis of the remaining BM B cells showed prevalence of immature and/or transitional B cells (CD38++CD24++) and CD27+IgD- memory cells, while IgD+ cells were completely depleted. A significant reduction of CD27+ cells in BM and in circulation was observed long after rituximab treatment (mean 22 months), while levels of naive B cells in BM and in circulation were increased. The levels of rheumatoid factor decline after rituximab treatment but returned to baseline levels at the time of retreatment.
Conclusions: Anti-CD20 treatment achieves a depletion of IgD+ B cells shortly after the treatment. At the long term follow up, a reduction of CD27+ B cells was observed in blood and BM. The prolonged inability to up-regulate CD27 may inhibit the renewal of memory B cells. This reduction of CD27+ B cells does not prevent autoantibody production suggesting that mechanisms regulating the formation of auto reactive clones are not disrupted by rituximab.