Objective. To assess the effect of B cell depletion therapy on effector CD4+ T cell homeostasis and its relation to objective measures of disease activity in patients with primary Sjogren syndrome (pSS).
Methods. Twenty-four patients with pSS treated with rituximab (RTX) and 24 healthy controls (HC) were included. Frequencies of circulating effector CD4+ T cell subsets were examined by flow cytometry at baseline and 16, 24, 36, and 48 weeks after the first RTX infusion. Th1, Th2, follicular Th (TFH), and Th17 cells were discerned based on surface marker expression patterns. Additionally, intracellular cytokine staining was performed for interferon-gamma, interleukin (IL)-4, IL-21, and IL-17 and serum levels of these cytokines were analyzed.
Results. In patients with pSS, frequencies of circulating TFH cells and Th17 cells were increased at baseline compared with HC, whereas frequencies of Th1 and Th2 cells were unchanged. B cell depletion therapy resulted in a pronounced decrease in circulating TFH cells, whereas Th17 cells were only slightly lowered. Frequencies of IL-21-producing and IL-17-producing CD4+ T cells and serum levels of IL-21 and IL-17 were also reduced. Importantly, the decrease in circulating TFH cells was associated with lower systemic disease activity over time, as measured by the European League Against Rheumatism Sjogren's Syndrome Disease Activity Index scores and serum IgG levels.
Conclusion. B cell depletion therapy in patients with pSS results in normalization of the elevated levels of circulating TFH cells. This reduction is associated with improved objective clinical disease activity measures. Our observations illustrate the pivotal role of the crosstalk between B cells and TFH cells in the pathogenesis of pSS.