Treatment of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus by Nutrition and Dendritic Cell Targeting


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Virginia Tech


Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease involving the inflammatory damages of multiple organs. Lupus nephritis (LN) as the manifestation in the kidney occurs in more than 50% of SLE patients and is a major cause of morbidity and mortality. Current treatments consist of immunosuppressants that always lead to compromised immune responses with increased risks of infections as the major side effect. To minimize this side effect, it is crucial to develop new treatments that are more natural and specific.

Vitamin A, particularly in the form of its functional metabolite, retinoic acid, has shown some beneficial effects against LN in both lupus-prone mouse models and clinical cases. However, a more systemic evaluation of vitamin A treatment in lupus had not been investigated. In our study, we found paradoxical effects of all-trans-retinoic acid (tRA) on lupus-like disease in MRL/lpr lupus-prone mice. Starting at 6 weeks old when the inflammatory environment had been established in MRL/lpr mice, tRA administration reduced immune cell numbers in the secondary lymphoid organs and improved glomerulonephritis. However, circulating autoantibodies and inflammation in renal tubulointerstitium and other organs were increased. The detrimental effects of tRA were not present in MRL control mice, which didn't have an established inflammatory environment at 6 weeks old as shown in MRL/lpr mice, suggesting that the pro-inflammatory effects of tRA are dependent on the pre-existing inflammatory environment. Therefore, to successfully apply vitamin A-based treatment, it is important to avoid the detrimental effects of tRA on lupus by identifying and then specifically eliminating the critical pro-inflammatory immune cell types in lupus. As treatments usually start after the onset of apparent symptoms in patients at the effector stage of autoimmune responses, targeting the inflammatory contributors at this stage appears to be more practical and critical.

Among different types of leukocytes, we chose to focus on dendritic cells (DCs), because they are highly diverse and critical in the immune responses as a bridge between the innate and adaptive immune systems. Plasmacytoid DCs (pDCs) as a candidate target have been demonstrated to be crucial for the initiation of lupus development by producing IFNα. However, we demonstrated that although pDCs produced a large amount of IFNα during disease initiation, those from late-stage lupus mice were found to be defective in producing IFNα, suggesting that pDC-targeted treatments should be performed at the initiation stage. This will depend on the progress in early diagnosis in the future. Besides pDCs, we identified a CD11c+ cell population absent at the early-stage but gradually accumulating at the late-stage in the kidneys of lupus mice. These cells have a phenotype of mature monocyte-derived DCs, with particularly high CX3CR1 expression on the surface. Consistent with their pathogenic cytokine profile, in vivo administration of anti-CX3CR1-saporin conjugates to dysfunction these cells in MRL/lpr mice significantly reduced proteinuria scores. Ex vivo activation of renal-infiltrating CD4+ T cells showed increased survival rate, proliferation and IFN-γ production of activated CD4+ T cells when they were cultured with these renal-infiltrating CD11c+ cells. These results suggest that the renal-infiltrating CD11c+ cells are pathogenic and promote inflammation in the kidney at the later effector stage of lupus by interacting with renal-infiltrating CD4+ T cells.

In conclusion, although vitamin A showed anti-inflammatory effects on reducing glomerulonephritis, its use in lupus treatment should be guarded due to the other potential pro-inflammatory effects induced by the pre-existing inflammatory environment. IFNα-producing pDCs and CX3CR1highCD11c+ monocyte-derived DCs could be specific therapeutic targets to reduce the established inflammation at the early stage and late stage of LN, respectively. Therefore, it is worthwhile to further investigate the comprehensive effects of combination therapy on lupus, with vitamin A administration and pDCs-specific depletion at the early stage, and CX3CR1highCD11c+ monocyte-derived DCs-specific depletion at the late stage.



systemic lupus erythematosus, lupus nephritis, vitamin A, all-trans-retinoic acid, IFNα, dendritic cells