The etiopathogenesis of primary Sjögren's syndrome (SS) is largely unknown. In other autoimmune diseases, type I interferon (IFN) may play a pivotal role by triggering and sustaining the disease process. We therefore aimed to determine whether patients with primary SS had an activated type I IFN system.
Salivary gland biopsy specimens and sera from patients with primary SS were investigated for the occurrence of IFNα-producing cells and measurable IFNα levels, respectively. The ability of primary SS sera together with apoptotic or necrotic cells to induce IFNα production in normal peripheral blood mononuclear cells was examined. The IFNα inducer was characterized, and IFNα-producing cells were identified. Clinical data were correlated with the IFNα-inducing capacity of primary SS sera.
Numerous IFNα-producing cells were detected in salivary gland biopsy specimens, despite low serum IFNα levels. Autoantibodies to RNA-binding proteins, combined with material released by necrotic or late apoptotic cells, were potent inducers of IFNα production in plasmacytoid dendritic cells (PDCs). This appeared to be attributable to RNA-containing immune complexes triggering PDCs by means of RNA and interaction with Fcγ receptor IIa. The IFNα-inducing capacity of sera was associated with positive results of a labial salivary gland biopsy (focus score ≥1) and with dermatologic, hematologic, and pulmonary manifestations.
Patients with primary SS have an activated type I IFN system. Although virus may initiate the production of IFN, the continued IFNα synthesis is caused by RNA-containing immune complexes that activate PDCs to prolong IFNα production at the tissue level. This IFNα promotes the autoimmune process by a vicious circle–like mechanism, with increased autoantibody production and formation of more endogenous IFNα inducers.