Objectives: This study sought to investigate the genome-wide transcriptional effects of a combination of disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (tDMARD; methotrexate, sulfasalazine and hydroxychloroquine) in synovial tissues obtained from early rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients. While combination DMARD strategies have been investigated for clinical efficacy, very little data exists on the potential molecular mechanism of action. We hypothesized that tDMARD would impact multiple biological pathways, but the specific pathways were unknown.
Methods: Paired synovial biopsy samples from early RA patients before and after 6 months of tDMARD therapy were collected by arthroscopy (n = 19). These biopsies as well as those from subjects with normal synovium (n = 28) were profiled by total RNA sequencing.
Results: Large differences in gene expression between RA and control biopsies (over 5000 genes) were identified. Despite clinical efficacy, the expression of a restricted set of less than 300 genes was reversed after 6 months of treatment. Many genes remained elevated, even in patients who achieved low disease activity. Interestingly, tDMARD downregulated genes included those involved in T cell activation and signaling and plasmablast/plasma cell differentiation and function.
Conclusions: We have identified transcriptomic signatures that characterize synovial tissue from RA patients with early disease. Analysis after 6 months of tDMARD treatment highlight consistent alterations in expression of genes related to T cell activation and plasmablast/plasma cell differentiation. These results provide novel insight into the biology of early RA and the mechanism of tDMARD action and may help identify novel drug targets to improve rates of treatment-induced disease remission.