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JOURNAL ARTICLE
RESEARCH SUPPORT, NON-U.S. GOV'T
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[The immunologic homunculus in rheumatoid arthritis. A new viewpoint of immunopathogenesis in rheumatoid arthritis and therapeutic consequences].

Autoreactivity plays a major role in the pathogenesis of RA. The rheumatoid factor has been and still is for now more than 50 years the only autoreactivity that is clinically applied in the diagnosis of RA. This well reflects the current way of thinking that a single antigen or a single cause drives an individual into disease. Although by now many other autoantigens and autoreactivities have been described, their discovery was always on the search for the one and only autoreactivity that causes RA. This includes also immune reactivities directed against xenogenic antigens. But, none of the known RA-associated autoreactivities is present in all RA patients and none of them occurs exclusively in RA. Thus, the observed sensitivities and specificities are well below 100%. Therefore, RA has often been postulated to consist of various immunological subentities with similar clinical symptoms. Nevertheless, none of the autoreactivities correlates with a distinct clinical feature or course of disease. It is about time to say good-bye to the idea that a single antigen or immunoreactvity causes and maintains rheumatoid arthritis. In this paper we present RA as the clinical outcome of an immune system that has shifted from a healthy to an autoimmune steady state. This is accomplished by many different reactivities and autoreactivities that occur either in parallel or one after the other. The entirety of the known RA-associated reactivities and (auto)antigens is presented in detail. The major RA-relevant autoantigens comprise BiP, citrulline, the Sa-antigen, hnRNP A2, p205, IgG, calpastatin, calreticulin, collagen and the shared HLA-DR epitope. The accumulation of factor--involving autoreactivities, cytokines, environmental and genetic factors--that challenge the normal regulatory mechanisms of the immune system lead to a regulatory catastrophe. In individuals developing the clinical features of RA the immune system has been regulated to a new--autoimmune--steady state. This attractor "rheumatoid arthritis" has many features of what has originally been described by Irun Cohen as the immunological homunculus: The healthy immune system is configured such as to direct its attention to major self-antigens. Thus it creates an autoreactivity to many autoantigens as a prerequisite for regulatory mechanisms that are sufficient to control them. The shift from the normal to rheumatoid attractor involves the inflammatory cytokines TNF-alpha, IL-1 and IL-6, autoreactive T- and B cells directed at a variety of synovial and systemic antigens, activated dendritic cells and macrophages, tissue destruction and genetic factors such as the association with shared epitope. Environmental factors involved may also, but do not necessarily, include infection. With the appearance of clinical features of RA, naive, potentially autoreactive T cells infiltrate the synovial compartment and become activated by dendritic cells and other APCs. The autoantigenic peptides that are presented to these T cells are derived from inflammatory cell and tissue destruction as well as from tissue repair and remodeling processes. These T cells proliferate and either provide help to B cells with the specificity to the same antigens or cause direct cytopathic tissue damage. Thereby, more and novel antigens are generated, released and presented again to naive or primed autoreactive T cells. These processes involving cytokines, tissue destruction and autoreactive T cells are sufficient to maintain RA even without the permanent presence of a triggering agent. The recursive autoimmune processes are well consistent with the finding of the many different autoreactivities in RA and their respective sensitivities and specificities. The massive influx of T cells into the arthritic joint is accompanied by the anergization of over 90% of T cells in this compartment--which further substantiates the concept of the RA attractor within the self-regulating immune system. Thereby, the RA-attracted immune system is not able to completely downregulate the inflammation and the local tissue damage/repair. Thus, the immune system is permanently stimulated and suddenly by chance shifts to a stable state different from the healthy system--reaching the wide fields of rheumatoid arthritis which in itself is self-sustaining as the healthy state before disease onset.

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