Recent Progress in the Understanding of B-Cell Functions in Autoimmunity


Prof. P. Youinou, Laboratory of Immunology, Institut de Synergie des Sciences et de la Santé, Brest University Medical School Hospital, BP 824, F 29609 Brest cedex, France. E-mail:


Our early concepts of the normal role of B cells in immunity focused on their ability to produce antibodies (Ab) and in the case of autoimmune diseases autoAbs, some of which were pathogenic. Over the past 10 years, it has became apparent that B cells display a variety of characteristics, other than Ab production, which could contribute to autoimmunity. They normally play a role in the development of lymphoid architecture, regulating T-cell subsets and dendritic cell (DC) function through cytokine production, and in activation of T cells. Receptors editing is also important in B cells which aids in immunity to infection and, possibly, prevention of autoimmunity. Transgenic animal models have now shown that B cells are necessary for many autoimmune diseases although their Ab products are not required in some cases. Negative signalling by CD5 and other molecules, such as CD22, in maintaining tolerance through recruitment of src-homology two domain-containing protein tyrosine phosphatase-1 has also been documented. In fact, we have now reached a new era whereby the B cell has returned as an important contributor to autoimmune disorders, so that the race is on to characterize signalling regulation via the B-cell receptor and coreceptors. Identification of such molecules and their potential defects should lead to effective ways of controlling the immune response and in particular preventing the development of autoimmune states. The classical view of B cells in the biology of immune responses to infectious and self-antigens (Ag) that they promote immunity primarily by producing Ab turns out to be rather naïve. Indeed, studies over the last few years indicate that this view is far from complete, and suggest that B lymphocytes have extraordinarily diverse functions within the immune system. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly clear that the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases cannot solely be accounted for by T cells, and intrinsic abnormalities of B cells have been described in such conditions. In this brief review we highlight some recent observations in the context of B lymphocyte in pathophysiology, and focus on their revival as pivotal players the pathophysiology in autoimmune diseases. Yet, it remains difficult to provide a model of how important B cells are in immunity and autoimmunity.