Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a highly variable autoimmune disease that can involve severe organ-threatening symptoms, such as lupus nephritis. Certain drugs, such as mycophenolate mofetil (MMF), are effective at reducing morbidity associated with nephritis; however, the immune pathways associated with disease suppression are poorly defined. Here, we provide evidence that MMF inhibits phosphorylation of STAT3 and other associated immune pathways. Using mass cytometry and bead-based or ELISA assays, the systemic phenotype of SLE patients not taking (MMF-) or taking (MMF+) MMF were studied. MMF+ SLE patients had significant reductions in total numbers of transitional B cells, plasmablasts, and T cells, specifically CD4+ Th17-type and CD4+ Treg-type cells, compared with MMF- patients. Plasma soluble mediators were decreased in MMF+ patients including chemokines (MIG/CXCL9 and SDF-1α/CXCL12) and growth factors (VEGF-A and PDGF-BB). Soluble mediators and cell subsets grouped by functional properties revealed significant modifications associated with STAT3 and B cell pathways. Further, healthy PBMCs treated with IL-6 revealed a reduction in p-STAT3 following the addition of mycophenolic acid (the active metabolite of MMF). In conclusion, the inhibition of STAT3 phosphorylation by MMF may explain the effectiveness of this treatment in SLE patients, since increased levels of p-STAT3 are associated with disease pathology.
Keywords: Autoimmunity; Drug therapy; Immunology; Lupus; Signal transduction.