The possible involvement of retroviruses in the aetiology of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) was investigated. Retrovirus antigens were not expressed on rheumatoid synovial and peripheral blood lymphocytes as judged by membrane immunofluorescence, radioimmunoassay, and complement-mediated cytotoxicity. The specific antiretroviral (anti-RD-144 and anti-SSAV) sera used in this study were produced in rabbits immunised with viral antigens grown in a homologous system (rabbit cells and medium supplemented with normal rabbit serum), avoiding non-specific immunofluorescence previously detected with donated antiretroviral sera. Immune complexes lodged in the rheumatoid synovial membranes did not contain, and other cells within the membranes did not express, retroviral antigens. Antibodies cross-reacting with primate retrovirus antigens were sought in sera from patients with 'autoimmune' diseases by means of solid phase radioimmunoassay. There were no retrovirus antibodies in the 3 groups of patients studied, that is, those with rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and with non-RA conditions. Absorption of rheumatoid factor did not alter this conclusion. These results give little support to the hypothesis that activation of endogenous human retroviruses or an infection with horizontally transmitted retroviruses is associated with the rheumatoid process.
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