Introduction: Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is often associated with diminished muscle mass, reflecting an imbalance between protein synthesis and protein breakdown. To investigate the anabolic potential of both exercise and nutritional protein intake we investigated the muscle protein synthesis rate and anabolic signaling response in patients with RA compared to healthy controls.
Methods: Thirteen RA patients (age range 34-84 years; diagnosed for 1-32 years, median 8 years) were individually matched with 13 healthy controls for gender, age, BMI and activity level (CON). Plasma levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), interleukin (IL)-6 and tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α were measured using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) in resting blood samples obtained on two separate days. Skeletal muscle myofibrillar and connective tissue protein fractional synthesis rate (FSR) was measured by incorporation of the amino acid (13)C6-phenylalanine tracer in the overnight fasted state for 3 hours (BASAL) and 3 hours after intake of whey protein (0.5 g/kg lean body mass) alone (PROT, 3 hrs) and in combination with knee-extensor exercise (EX) with one leg (8 × 10 reps at 70 % of 1RM; PROT + EX, 3 hrs). Expression of genes related to inflammatory signaling, myogenesis and muscle growth/atrophy were analyzed by real-time reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR).
Results: CRP was significantly higher in the RA patients (2.25 (0.50) mg/l) than in controls (1.07 (0.25) mg/l; p = 0.038) and so was TNF-α (RA 1.18 (0.30) pg/ml vs. CON 0.64 (0.07) pg/ml; p = 0.008). Muscle myofibrillar protein synthesis in both RA patients and CON increased in response to PROT and PROT + EX, and even more with PROT + EX (p < 0.001), with no difference between groups (p > 0.05). The gene expression response was largely similar in RA vs. CON, however, expression of the genes coding for TNF-α, myogenin and HGF1 were more responsive to exercise in RA patients than in CON.
Conclusions: The study demonstrates that muscle protein synthesis rate and muscle gene expression can be stimulated by protein intake alone and in combination with physical exercise in patients with well-treated RA to a similar extent as in healthy individuals. This indicates that moderately inflamed RA patients have maintained their muscle anabolic responsiveness to physical activity and protein intake.