Background: Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune inflammatory disease affecting the joints. Anti-citrullinated protein antibodies (ACPA) are frequently found in RA. Previous studies identified a citrullinated epitope in cartilage proteoglycan (PG) aggrecan that elicited pro-inflammatory cytokine production by RA T cells. We recently reported the presence of ACPA-reactive (citrullinated) PG in RA cartilage. Herein, we sought to identify additional citrullinated epitopes in human PG that are recognized by T cells or antibodies from RA patients.
Methods: We used mice with PG-induced arthritis (PGIA) as a screening tool to select citrulline (Cit)-containing PG peptides that were more immunogenic than the arginine (R)-containing counterparts. The selected peptide pairs were tested for induction of pro-inflammatory T-cell cytokine production in RA and healthy control peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) cultures using ELISA and flow cytometry. Anti-Cit and anti-R peptide antibodies were detected by ELISA.
Results: Splenocytes from mice with PGIA exhibited greater T-cell cytokine secretion in response to the Cit than the R version of PG peptide 49 (P49) and anti-P49 antibodies were found in PGIA serum. PBMC from ACPA+ and ACPA- RA patients, but not from healthy controls, responded to Cit49 with robust cytokine production. High levels of anti-Cit49 antibodies were found in the plasma of a subset of ACPA+ RA patients. Another PG peptide (Cit13) similar to the previously described T-cell epitope induced greater cytokine responses than R13 by control (but not RA) PBMC, however, anti-Cit13 antibodies were rarely detected in human plasma.
Conclusions: We identified a novel citrullinated PG epitope (Cit49) that is highly immunogenic in mice with PGIA and in RA patients. We also describe T-cell and antibody reactivity with Cit49 in ACPA+ RA. As citrullinated PG might be present in RA articular cartilage, Cit PG epitope-induced T-cell activation or antibody deposition may occur in the joints of RA patients.