Objectives Data from rodent models indicate that invariant natural killer T (iNKT) cells are key regulators of many immune responses including autoimmune arthritis, but their role in human diseases is unclear. The aims of this study are to determine whether iNKT cell frequency and function are altered in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and the clinical significance of such iNKT cell abnormalities.
Methods Peripheral blood iNKT cell frequency and proliferative response to an iNKT cell-specific agonist, α-galactosylceramide were measured in 46 RA patients (including 23 untreated, newly diagnosed patients), 22 healthy controls and 27 patients presenting with recent-onset joint pain. The relationship between iNKT cell frequency and clinical characteristics and the effects of immunosuppressive treatment was examined.
Results Compared with healthy controls, RA patients had a decreased frequency of peripheral blood iNKT cells (median 0.001% vs 0.021%, p<0.001) and the proliferative response of this subset to α-galactosylceramide was also diminished in the patient group (median fold-expansion 31 vs 121, p=0.037). These abnormalities preceded the initiation of disease-modifying or immunosuppressive therapy, whose effect was to increase the circulating iNKT cell frequency (p=0.037). Furthermore, iNKT cell frequency correlated inversely with the systemic inflammatory marker, C-reactive protein (p=0.008). Finally, in patients presenting with recent-onset joint symptoms, normal peripheral blood iNKT cell frequency predicted a non-inflammatory cause of joint pain.
Conclusion iNKT cell deficiency is present in patients with RA and other inflammatory arthropathy. Normal iNKT cell frequency predicts non-inflammatory causes of joint pain.
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