Loss of balance between protective and pro-inflammatory synovial tissue T-cell polyfunctionality predates clinical onset of rheumatoid arthritis

Ann Rheum Dis. 2022 Feb;81(2):193-205. doi: 10.1136/annrheumdis-2021-220458. Epub 2021 Oct 1.


Objectives: This study investigates pathogenic and protective polyfunctional T-cell responses in patient with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), individuals at risk (IAR) and healthy control (HC) synovial-tissue biopsies and identifies the presence of a novel population of pathogenic polyfunctional T-cells that are enriched in the RA joint prior to the development of clinical inflammation.

Methods: Pathway enrichment analysis of previously obtained RNAseq data of synovial biopsies from RA (n=118), IAR (n=20) and HC (n=44) was performed. Single-cell synovial tissue suspensions from RA (n=10), IAR (n=7) and HC (n=7) and paired peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) were stimulated in vitro and polyfunctional synovial T-cell subsets examined by flow cytometric analysis, simplified presentation of incredibly complex evaluations (SPICE) and FlowSom clustering. Flow-imaging was utilised to confirm specific T-cell cluster identification. Fluorescent lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM) was used to visualise metabolic status of sorted T-cell populations.

Results: Increased plasticity of Tfh cells and CD4 T-cell polyfunctionality with enriched memory Treg cell responses was demonstrated in RA patient synovial tissue. Synovial-tissue RNAseq analysis reveals that enrichment in T-cell activation and differentiation pathways pre-dates the onset of RA. Switch from potentially protective IL-4 and granulocyte macrophage colony stimulating factor (GMCSF) dominated polyfunctional CD4 T-cell responses towards pathogenic polyfunctionality is evident in patient with IAR and RA synovial tissue. Cluster analysis reveals the accumulation of highly polyfunctional CD4+ CD8dim T-cells in IAR and RA but not HC synovial tissue. CD4+ CD8dim T-cells show increased utilisation of oxidative phosphorylation, a characteristic of metabolically primed memory T-cells. Frequency of synovial CD4+ CD8dim T-cells correlates with RA disease activity.

Conclusion: Switch from potentially protective to pathogenic T-cell polyfunctionality pre-dates the onset of clinical inflammation and constitutes an opportunity for therapeutic intervention in RA.

Keywords: T-lymphocyte subsets; arthritis; autoimmune diseases; rheumatoid.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / immunology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prodromal Symptoms
  • Synovial Membrane / immunology*
  • T-Lymphocyte Subsets / immunology*
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology*