The principal central nervous system (CNS) water channel, aquaporin-4 (AQP4), is confined to astrocytic and ependymal membranes and is the target of a pathogenic autoantibody, neuromyelitis optica (NMO)-IgG. This disease-specific autoantibody unifies a spectrum of relapsing CNS autoimmune inflammatory disorders of which NMO exemplifies the classic phenotype. Multiple sclerosis and other immune-mediated demyelinating disorders of the CNS lack a distinctive biomarker. Two AQP4 isoforms, M1 and M23, exist as homotetrameric and heterotetrameric intramembranous particles (IMPs). Orthogonal arrays of predominantly M23 particles (OAPs) are an ultrastructural characteristic of astrocytic membranes. We used high-titered serum from 32 AQP4-IgG-seropositive patients and 85 controls to investigate the nature and molecular location of AQP4 epitopes that bind NMO-IgG, and the influence of supramolecular structure. NMO-IgG bound to denatured AQP4 monomers (68% of cases), to native tetramers and high order arrays (90% of cases), and to AQP4 in live cell membranes (100% of cases). Disease-specific epitopes reside in extracellular loop C more than in loops A or E. IgG binding to intracellular epitopes lacks disease specificity. These observations predict greater disease sensitivity and specificity for tissue-based and cell-based serological assays employing "native" AQP4 than assays employing denatured AQP4 and fragments. NMO-IgG binds most avidly to plasma membrane surface AQP4 epitopes formed by loop interactions within tetramers and by intermolecular interactions within high order structures. The relative abundance and localization of AQP4 high order arrays in distinct CNS regions may explain the variability in clinical phenotype of NMO spectrum disorders.
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