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PLoS One. 2016 Jul 28;11(7):e0160284. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0160284. eCollection 2016.

Immune Recognition of Citrullinated Proteoglycan Aggrecan Epitopes in Mice with Proteoglycan-Induced Arthritis and in Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis.

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Section of Molecular Medicine, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, Illinois, United States of America.
Rheumatology Associates, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, Illinois, United States of America.
Department of Genetics, Cell and Immunobiology, Semmelweis University, Budapest, Hungary.



Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune inflammatory disease affecting the joints. Anti-citrullinated protein antibodies (ACPA) are frequently found in RA. Previous studies identified a citrullinated epitope in cartilage proteoglycan (PG) aggrecan that elicited pro-inflammatory cytokine production by RA T cells. We recently reported the presence of ACPA-reactive (citrullinated) PG in RA cartilage. Herein, we sought to identify additional citrullinated epitopes in human PG that are recognized by T cells or antibodies from RA patients.


We used mice with PG-induced arthritis (PGIA) as a screening tool to select citrulline (Cit)-containing PG peptides that were more immunogenic than the arginine (R)-containing counterparts. The selected peptide pairs were tested for induction of pro-inflammatory T-cell cytokine production in RA and healthy control peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMC) cultures using ELISA and flow cytometry. Anti-Cit and anti-R peptide antibodies were detected by ELISA.


Splenocytes from mice with PGIA exhibited greater T-cell cytokine secretion in response to the Cit than the R version of PG peptide 49 (P49) and anti-P49 antibodies were found in PGIA serum. PBMC from ACPA+ and ACPA- RA patients, but not from healthy controls, responded to Cit49 with robust cytokine production. High levels of anti-Cit49 antibodies were found in the plasma of a subset of ACPA+ RA patients. Another PG peptide (Cit13) similar to the previously described T-cell epitope induced greater cytokine responses than R13 by control (but not RA) PBMC, however, anti-Cit13 antibodies were rarely detected in human plasma.


We identified a novel citrullinated PG epitope (Cit49) that is highly immunogenic in mice with PGIA and in RA patients. We also describe T-cell and antibody reactivity with Cit49 in ACPA+ RA. As citrullinated PG might be present in RA articular cartilage, Cit PG epitope-induced T-cell activation or antibody deposition may occur in the joints of RA patients.

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