Neutrophil extracellular traps mediate articular cartilage damage and enhance cartilage component immunogenicity in rheumatoid arthritis

JCI Insight. 2020 Jul 9;5(13):e139388. doi: 10.1172/jci.insight.139388.


Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is characterized by synovial joint inflammation, cartilage damage, and dysregulation of the adaptive immune system. While neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs) have been proposed to play a role in the generation of modified autoantigens and in the activation of synovial fibroblasts, it remains unknown whether NETs are directly involved in cartilage damage. Here, we report a new mechanism by which NET-derived elastase disrupts cartilage matrix and induces release of membrane-bound peptidylarginine deiminase-2 by fibroblast-like synoviocytes (FLSs). Cartilage fragments are subsequently citrullinated, internalized by FLSs, and then presented to antigen-specific CD4+ T cells. Furthermore, immune complexes containing citrullinated cartilage components can activate macrophages to release proinflammatory cytokines. HLA-DRB1*04:01 transgenic mice immunized with NETs develop autoantibodies against citrullinated cartilage proteins and display enhanced cartilage damage. Inhibition of NET-derived elastase rescues NET-mediated cartilage damage. These results show that NETs and neutrophil elastase externalized in these structures play fundamental pathogenic roles in promoting cartilage damage and synovial inflammation. Strategies targeting neutrophil elastase and NETs could have a therapeutic role in RA and in other inflammatory diseases associated with inflammatory joint damage.

Keywords: Autoimmunity; Cartilage; Innate immunity; Neutrophils.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / immunology*
  • Autoantibodies / immunology
  • Autoantigens / immunology
  • Cartilage, Articular / immunology
  • Cartilage, Articular / injuries*
  • Citrulline / metabolism
  • Extracellular Traps / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / immunology*
  • Mice
  • Neutrophils / immunology*


  • Autoantibodies
  • Autoantigens
  • Citrulline