B lymphocyte depletion has recently emerged as a promising approach to the treatment of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). As part of a phase I/II dose-ranging trial of rituximab in the treatment of SLE, we evaluated the fate of discrete B cell subsets in the setting of selective depletion by anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody and during the B cell recovery phase.
B cell depletion and phenotype were examined by flow cytometry of peripheral blood mononuclear cells for CD19, CD20, CD27, IgD, and CD38 expression. Changes in autoreactive B lymphocytes and plasma cells were assessed by determination of serum autoantibody levels (anti–double-stranded DNA and VH4.34) and by direct monitoring of a unique autoreactive B cell population bearing surface antibodies whose heavy chain is encoded by the VH4.34 gene segment.
Compared with normal controls, SLE patients displayed several abnormalities in peripheral B cell homeostasis at baseline, including naive lymphopenia, expansion of a CD27−,IgD− (double negative) population, and expansion of circulating plasmablasts. Remarkably, these abnormalities resolved after effective B cell depletion with rituximab and immune reconstitution. The frequency of autoreactive VH4.34 memory B cells also decreased 1 year posttreatment, despite the presence of low levels of residual memory B cells at the point of maximal B cell depletion and persistently elevated serum autoantibody titers in most patients.
This study is the first to show evidence that in SLE, specific B cell depletion therapy with rituximab dramatically improves abnormalities in B cell homeostasis and tolerance that are characteristic of this disease. The persistence of elevated autoantibody titers may reflect the presence of low levels of residual autoreactive memory B cells and/or long-lived autoreactive plasma cells.