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Front Immunol. 2013 Jan 17;3:428. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2012.00428. eCollection 2012.

NETs: the missing link between cell death and systemic autoimmune diseases?

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Division of Rheumatology, Department of Medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Baltimore, MD, USA.


For almost 20 years, apoptosis and secondary necrosis have been considered the major source of autoantigens and endogenous adjuvants in the pathogenic model of systemic autoimmune diseases. This focus is justified in part because initial evidence in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) guided investigators toward the study of apoptosis, but also because other forms of cell death were unknown. To date, it is known that many other forms of cell death occur, and that they vary in their capacity to stimulate as well as inhibit the immune system. Among these, NETosis (an antimicrobial form of death in neutrophils in which nuclear material is extruded from the cell forming extracellular traps), is gaining major interest as a process that may trigger some of the immune features found in SLE, granulomatosis with polyangiitis (formerly Wegener's granulomatosis) and Felty's syndrome. Although there have been volumes of very compelling studies published on the role of cell death in autoimmunity, no unifying theory has been adopted nor have any successful therapeutics been developed based on this important pathway. The recent inclusion of NETosis into the pathogenic model of autoimmune diseases certainly adds novel insights into this paradigm, but also reveals a previously unappreciated level of complexity and raises many new questions. This review discusses the role of cell death in systemic autoimmune diseases with a focus on apoptosis and NETosis, highlights the current short comings in our understanding of the vast complexity of cell death, and considers the potential shift in the cell death paradigm in autoimmunity. Understanding this complexity is critical in order to develop tools to clearly define the death pathways that are active in systemic autoimmune diseases, identify drivers of disease propagation, and develop novel therapeutics.


NETosis; NETs; apoptosis; autoimmune disease; cell death; necrosis

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