Objectives A previously identified signal transduction and activator of transcription-3 (STAT3) target-enriched gene signature in circulating CD4+ T cells of patients with early rheumatoid arthritis (RA) was prominent in autoantibody-negative individuals. Here, interleukin (IL)-6-mediated STAT signalling was investigated in circulating lymphocytes of an independent early arthritis patient cohort, seeking further insight into RA pathogenesis and biomarkers of potential clinical utility.
Methods Constitutive and IL-6-induced expression of phosphorylated STAT1 (pSTAT1) and pSTAT3 was determined in T and B cells using Phosflow cytometric analysis in patients with RA and controls. Contemporaneous levels of serum cytokines were measured by immunoassay. Induced gene expression was measured in cultured CD4+T cells by quantitative real-time PCR.
Results Among circulating lymphocytes of 187 patients with early arthritis, constitutive pSTAT3 correlated with serum IL-6 levels maximally in CD4+ T cells. Increased constitutive pSTAT3, but not pSTAT1, was observed in circulating CD4+ T cells of patients with early anticitrullinated peptide autoantibody (ACPA)-negative RA compared with disease controls, and these levels decreased alongside markers of disease activity with IL-6R-targeted treatment. Among patients presenting with seronegative undifferentiated arthritis (UA) the ratio of constitutive pSTAT3:pSTAT1 in CD4+ T cells contributed substantially to an algorithm for predicting progression to classifiable RA during a median of 20 months follow-up (area under receiver operator characteristic curve=0.84; p<0.001).
Conclusions Our findings support a particular role for IL-6-driven CD4+ T cell activation via STAT3 during the induction of RA, particularly as a feature of ACPA-negative disease. CD4+ T cell pSTAT measurements show promise as biomarkers of UA–RA progression and now require independent validation.
- Early Rheumatoid Arthritis
- T Cells
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