Rituximab abrogates aquaporin-4-specific germinal center activity in patients with neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorders.
Damato V., Theorell J., Al-Diwani A., Kienzler A-K., Makuch M., Sun B., Handel A., Akdeniz D., Berretta A., Ramanathan S., Fower A., Whittam D., Gibbons E., McGlashan N., Green E., Huda S., Woodhall M., Palace J., Sheerin F., Waters P., Leite MI., Jacob A., Irani SR.
Neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorders (NMOSDs) are caused by immunoglobulin G (IgG) autoantibodies directed against the water channel aquaporin-4 (AQP4). In NMOSDs, discrete clinical relapses lead to disability and are robustly prevented by the anti-CD20 therapeutic rituximab; however, its mechanism of action in autoantibody-mediated disorders remains poorly understood. We hypothesized that AQP4-IgG production in germinal centers (GCs) was a core feature of NMOSDs and could be terminated by rituximab. To investigate this directly, deep cervical lymph node (dCLN) aspirates (n = 36) and blood (n = 406) were studied in a total of 63 NMOSD patients. Clinical relapses were associated with AQP4-IgM generation or shifts in AQP4-IgG subclasses (odds ratio = 6.0; range of 3.3 to 10.8; P < 0.0001), features consistent with GC activity. From seven dCLN aspirates of patients not administered rituximab, AQP4-IgGs were detected alongside specific intranodal synthesis of AQP4-IgG. AQP4-reactive B cells were isolated from unmutated naive and mutated memory populations in both blood and dCLNs. After rituximab administration, fewer clinical relapses (annual relapse rate of 0.79 to 0; P < 0.001) were accompanied by marked reductions in both AQP4-IgG (fourfold; P = 0.004) and intranodal B cells (430-fold; P < 0.0001) from 11 dCLNs. Our findings implicate ongoing GC activity as a rituximab-sensitive driver of AQP4 antibody production. They may explain rituximab’s clinical efficacy in several autoantibody-mediated diseases and highlight the potential value of direct GC measurements across autoimmune conditions.