Rituximab is a therapeutic anti-CD20 antibody used for in vivo depletion of B cells in proliferative and autoimmune diseases. However, the mechanisms of action are not fully understood, since not all of the therapy-mediated effects can be explained by the depletion of antibody-secreting cells. In addition to B cells, there is also a small population of T cells coexpressing CD20 in all individuals. This study was conducted to examine the phenotype and function of CD3+CD20+ T cells in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and healthy controls.
The phenotype and apoptosis of peripheral blood mononuclear cells from healthy donors and RA patients were examined by 4-color fluorescence-activated cell sorting analyses. Cytokine production was determined by intracellular staining and measurement of cytokines in the supernatants. Proliferation of sorted T cell populations was analyzed using 3H-thymidine uptake assays.
In healthy individuals, 0.1–6.8% of peripheral blood T cells (mean 1.6%; n = 142) coexpressed CD20, which was not significantly different from that in the peripheral blood of RA patients, in whom 0.4–2.6% of T cells (mean 1.2%; n = 27) were CD20+. During rituximab therapy, the CD20+ T cells along with the B cells were eliminated from the RA peripheral blood. Among the CD20+ T cells, 45% coexpressed CD8 and 55% coexpressed CD4. Polyclonal CD3+CD20+ cells were functionally characterized by constitutive cytokine production (i.e., interleukin-1β and tumor necrosis factor α), a low proliferative capacity, a high activation state, and enhanced susceptibility to apoptosis.
These findings suggest that CD20+ T cells represent a terminally differentiated cell type with immune-regulatory and proinflammatory capacities. Depletion of CD20+ T cells may be an additional mechanism by which anti-CD20 therapy functions in patients with RA.