The size and composition of circulating immune complexes in the sera of patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) were studied in relation to different manifestations of the disease. Circulating immune complexes from the sera of 94 patients (50 with extra-articular disease) and 10 matched controls were fractionated by sucrose density gradient ultracentrifugation. The composition, immunoglobulin and rheumatoid factor (RF) concentrations within each of the fractions were determined by a sensitive enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). Intermediate size (14S-21S) IgG complexes containing RF activity and 22S IgG-IgM RF complexes were found in the sera of 40 patients with RA, while intermediate size complexes of self associated IgG RF and larger size complexes (greater than 22S) of IgG RF and IgM RF were associated with extra-articular features of RA (50% of extra-articular disease). Complexes containing IgA were found in the sera of many patients with RA, and dimeric IgA RF mainly in patients with extra-articular disease. These results support the view that whereas small size circulating immune complexes are of no primary pathogenic importance in synovitis, large size (greater than 22S) circulating immune complexes may play a role in extra-articular disease in RA. Current understanding of the formation of large complexes provides a biological explanation for their occurrence and effects.
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