Blood samples collected from 13,858 randomly selected subjects participating in a health survey in Iceland from 1974 to 1983 were tested for rheumatoid factor. Samples that were positive in a sensitive RF screening test were analysed further by the Rose-Waaler technique and an isotype specific enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). In 1987 the 173 available participants who were RF positive and 156 matched RF negative controls were evaluated clinically for rheumatoid diseases. RF levels and isotype patterns were more persistent in the patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) than in RF positive subjects who did not have overt RA. The prevalence of RA was only 19% in the participants who were RF positive in 1987. Forty per cent of the participants who had a persistent (four to 13 years) increase of IgA RF combined with either IgM or IgG RF were diagnosed as having RA. A positive correlation was found between RF levels and various manifestations of RA. This association was stronger for the IgA and IgG RF isotypes than for IgM RF. Excluding RF positivity as a diagnostic parameter, RA was diagnosed in 33 of the participants and 20 (61%) of these patients had increased levels of IgM and IgA RF. Patients with RA with bone erosions in their hands had higher levels of IgA RF than patients without erosions, but an association was not found between bone erosions and other RF isotypes. None of the RF negative participants who were symptom free when the original blood sample was taken developed RA during the four to 13 year follow up period. In contrast, five symptom free RF positive participants developed RA during this period. These five patients had all had increased levels of at least two RF isotypes before the onset of their symptoms. It is concluded that the IgA and IgG RF isotypes have a closer association with the clinical parameters of RA than IgM RF. Furthermore, increases in RF can precede clinical manifestations of RA and this applies in particular to the IgA and IgG RF isotypes.
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