Detection of circulating highly expanded T-cell clones in at-risk individuals for rheumatoid arthritis before the clinical onset of the disease.
To quantitatively profile the T-cell repertoire in the peripheral blood of individuals genetically at risk for RA, namely first-degree relatives of RA patients (RA-FDR) at different phases of disease development.Next-generation sequencing of the TCR CDR3β repertoire was performed on genomic DNA isolated from whole blood samples of RA-FDR selected at three different pre-clinical stages and of matched RA patients (n = 20/group). T-cell clones were identified by their unique sequence and their degree of expansion (frequency) within each sample was characterized. Clones with a frequency over 0.5% were considered highly expanded clones (HEC).The absolute number of HEC was significantly higher in established RA patients (mean 4.65) and tended to be higher in symptomatic RA-FDR (mean 3.4) compared with asymptomatic RA-FDR (mean 1.55, P =0.003 and P =0.07, respectively). Asymptomatic individuals with high levels of ACPA did not differ from asymptomatic RA-FDR in terms of absolute number and frequency of clones. The number of HEC tended to be slightly higher at the time of RA onset (P =0.055). Neither clones shared by several patients, nor clones previously associated with RA, were preferentially present within or between the different groups. Finally, a longitudinal analysis did not allow to uncover a kinetic expansion of RA-specific clones closely correlated with disease development.HEC were detected in the peripheral blood before the clinical onset of RA, in particular in the later pre-clinical phase of RA development, and their presence increased over time.