On the origin of rheumatoid factors: Insights from analyses of variable region sequences

Semin Arthritis Rheum. 2019 Feb;48(4):603-610. doi: 10.1016/j.semarthrit.2018.06.006. Epub 2018 Jun 24.


Objectives: Rheumatoid factors (RFs) are thought to play an important role in rheumatoid arthritis (RA), but are also found in healthy donors (HDs). Previous studies examined variable region sequences of these autoantibodies at a time when knowledge of the human germline repertoire was incomplete. Here we collected and analyzed RF sequence data from the literature to elucidate how RFs develop and whether their characteristics differ between RA patients and HDs.

Methods: A database was built containing nucleotide sequences of RF heavy and light chain variable domains and characteristics including affinity, isotype and specificity, all collected from published papers. Gene usage and mutation frequencies were analyzed using IMGT/HiV-QUEST. Selection strength was assessed with the BASELINe tool.

Results: Sequences were retrieved for 183 RF clones (87 RA; 67 HDs; 29 other). No biased gene usage was observed for RA and HDs. However, there does appear to be skewed gene usage in RFs from patients with mixed cryoglobulinemia. Mutation frequency varies considerably between RFs, and isotype-switched clones have significantly more mutations. Monospecific RFs carry more mutations than polyspecific RFs; no difference was found for RA- versus HD-derived RFs. Overall, reported affinity is low (median 1 µM), with a non-significant trend toward higher affinity of RA-derived RFs. Mutation frequency and affinity did not appear to be correlated. BASELINe analysis suggests an overall lack of positive selection and less negative selection strength in RA-derived RFs.

Conclusions: RFs derived from RA patients have similar properties as those derived from HDs. The RF response can be characterized as a moderately matured autoantibody response, with variable levels of somatic hypermutation, but low affinity.

Keywords: Affinity; Gene usage; Rheumatoid arthritis; Rheumatoid factors; Sequence analysis.

MeSH terms

  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / genetics*
  • Databases, Genetic
  • Humans
  • Immunoglobulin Variable Region
  • Rheumatoid Factor / genetics*


  • Immunoglobulin Variable Region
  • Rheumatoid Factor