Introduction: Receptor activator of nuclear factor kappa B ligand (RANKL) is a key regulator of bone metabolism. Anti-citrullinated protein antibodies (ACPA) have been suggested to cause bone destruction by osteoclast activation. We investigated the relationship between RANKL and ACPA in patients with early untreated rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
Methods: Patients with newly diagnosed untreated RA (n = 183) were analyzed at baseline and 3 months after initiating methotrexate (MTX) treatment. Serum RANKL (total RANKL), ACPA (anti-CCP2) and ACPA specificities (anti-citrullinated (cit)-vimentin, anti-cit-enolase and anti-cit-fibrinogen) were determined by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). Synovial RANKL expression was evaluated by immunohistochemistry in a small group of patients (n = 15). The relationship between anti-cit-vim antibodies and bone destruction was further validated in 1116 RA patients included in the EIRA cohort. Pearson's chi-square test, Wilcoxon rank sum test, Wilcoxon signed rank test and linear regression models were used.
Results: Serum RANKL concentration was significantly higher (p <0.05) in ACPA-positive (median: 689 pmol/L, IQR 342-1253) compared with ACPA-negative (median: 159 pmol/L, IQR 96-243) patients and this difference was also seen for synovial RANKL expression. Serum RANKL associated with ACPA (p <0.05) and bone erosions in rheumatoid factor (RF)-negative patients (n = 59). Among ACPA specificites, anti-cit-vimentin (amino acids 60-75) was associated with higher RANKL concentration and higher prevalence of bone erosion (p <0.05). Significant reductions in both serum RANKL and ACPA levels were observed after 3 months of MTX treatment (p <0.05).
Conclusions: RANKL was elevated in ACPA-positive and in anti-cit-vimentin-positive patients with early untreated RA and associated with bone erosions. These findings give further support for an early direct pathogenic link between ACPA and bone destruction in RA.