The HLA–DRB1 “shared epitope” (SE) genotypes are associated with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), but it remains controversial whether the association is with incidence, severity, or both, whether there are associations in seronegative patients, and whether different DRB1 alleles that contain the SE have similar effects on RA susceptibility and/or severity. The present study was undertaken to study these issues in a large cohort of patients with RA.
White patients with RA of <6 months' duration (n = 793) were enrolled in an inception cohort. HLA–DRB1 typing was performed, and patients were categorized into 21 DRB1 genotype groups. The disability index of the Health Assessment Questionnaire was the primary outcome measure.
DRB1 associations in seronegative RA patients closely resembled those in controls. Of seropositive patients, 21% had 2 copies of the epitope, 52% had 1 copy, and 27% had none. However, not all genotypes with 1 copy were associated with increased susceptibility; for example, frequencies of DRB1*0404/X and *01/X did not differ from those in controls. Absolute differences between seropositive RA patients and controls were greatest for DRB1*0401 homozygosity (3.8% versus 0.8%, respectively) and *0401/0404 heterozygosity (4.7% versus 1.0%). DRB1*0404 was increased in frequency in seropositive RA but, unlike *0401, an increased frequency was seen only with 2 epitope copies. The relatively rare DRB1*10 had an unexpected association with seropositive RA, being present in 1.7% of seropositive RA patients and 0.7% of controls, and also showed a trend toward association with greater disease severity. The presence of 2 epitope copies was associated with increased frequency of seropositivity and younger age at disease onset, not with disease severity. Treatment indication bias was substantial and may have accounted for some of these effects. HLA–DRB1*0401/0404 was found much more frequently in men and in patients with a lower age at disease onset, and there was a trend toward a higher frequency of *0404/0401 in women.
This large inception cohort study confirms previously identified major associations and provides additional insights. Only one dominant association was found: *0401, which differs from other SE alleles in a single Lys-for-Arg substitution. The association of the rare DRB1*10 allele has not previously been postulated. Sex associations were confirmed. Associations with seronegative RA were not seen. Not all genotypes containing an SE copy showed increased susceptibility to RA. The association of SE genotypes found in this study related to disease susceptibility rather than severity.