Objective: This study was undertaken to examine the temporal relationship between scleroderma development and malignancy, and to evaluate whether this differs by autoantibody status among affected patients.
Methods: Study participants had a diagnosis of scleroderma, a diagnosis of cancer, cancer, an available serum sample, and a cancer pathology specimen. Sera were tested for autoantibodies against topoisomerase I, centromere, and RNA polymerase I/III by immunoprecipitation and/or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. Clinical and demographic characteristics were compared across autoantibody categories. Expression of RNA polymerases I and III was evaluated by immunohistochemistry using cancerous tissue from patients with anti-RNA polymerase antibodies.
Results: Twenty-three patients were enrolled. Six patients tested positive for anti-RNA polymerase I/III, 5 for anti-topoisomerase I, and 8 for anticentromere, and 4 were not positive for any of these antigens. The median duration of scleroderma at cancer diagnosis differed significantly between groups (-1.2 years in the anti-RNA polymerase I/III group, +13.4 years in the anti-topoisomerase I group, +11.1 years in the anticentromere group, and +2.3 years in the group that was negative for all antigens tested) (P = 0.027). RNA polymerase III demonstrated a robust nucleolar staining pattern in 4 of 5 available tumors from patients with antibodies to RNA polymerase I/III. In contrast, nucleolar RNA polymerase III staining was not detected in any of 4 examined tumors from the RNA polymerase antibody-negative group (P = 0.048).
Conclusion: Our findings indicate that there is a close temporal relationship between the onset of cancer and scleroderma in patients with antibodies to RNA polymerase I/III, which is distinct from scleroderma patients with other autoantibody specificities. In this study, autoantibody response and tumor antigen expression are associated. We propose that malignancy may initiate the scleroderma-specific immune response and drive disease in a subset of scleroderma patients.