Germinal center exclusion of autoreactive B cells is defective in human systemic lupus erythematosus

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Breach of B cell tolerance is central to the pathogenesis of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). However, how B cell tolerance is subverted in human SLE is poorly understood due to difficulties in identifying relevant autoreactive B cells and in obtaining lymphoid tissue. We have circumvented these limitations by using tonsil biopsies to study autoreactive B cells (9G4 B cells), whose regulation is abnormal in SLE. Here we show that 9G4 B cells are physiologically excluded during the early stages of the GC reaction before acquiring a centroblast phenotype. Furthermore, we provide evidence to indicate that an anergic response to B cell receptor stimulation may be responsible for such behavior. In contrast, in SLE, 9G4 B cells progressed unimpeded through this checkpoint, successfully participated in GC reactions, and expanded within the post-GC IgG memory and plasma cell compartments. The faulty regulation of 9G4 B cells was not shared by RA patients. To our knowledge, this work represents the first comparative analysis of the fate of a specific autoreactive human B cell population. The results identify a defective tolerance checkpoint that appears to be specific for human SLE.

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