Neuromuscular junction autoimmune disease: muscle specific kinase antibodies and treatments for myasthenia gravis

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Abstract

Purpose of review

Some of the 20% of myasthenia gravis patients who do not have antibodies to acetylcholine receptors (AChRs) have antibodies to muscle specific kinase (MuSK), but a full understanding of their frequency, the associated clinical phenotype and the mechanisms of action of the antibodies has not yet been achieved. Moreover, some patients do not respond well to conventional corticosteroid therapy. Here we review recent clinical and experimental studies on MuSK antibody associated myasthenia gravis, and summarize the results of newer treatments for myasthenia gravis.

Recent findings

MuSK antibodies are found in a variable proportion of AChR antibody negative myasthenia gravis patients who are often, but not exclusively, young adult females, with bulbar, neck, or respiratory muscle weakness. The thymus histology is normal or only very mildly abnormal. Surprisingly, limb or intercostal muscle biopsies exhibit no reduction in AChR numbers or complement deposition. However, patients without AChR or MuSK antibodies appear to be similar to those with AChR antibodies and may have low-affinity AChR antibodies. A variety of treatments, often intended to enable corticosteroid doses to be reduced, have been used in all types of myasthenia gravis with some success, but they have not been subjected to randomized clinical trials.

Summary

MuSK antibodies define a form of myasthenia gravis that can be difficult to diagnose, can be life threatening and may require additional treatments. An improved AChR antibody assay may be helpful in patients without AChR or MuSK antibodies. Clinical trials of drugs in other neuroimmunological diseases may help to guide the treatment of myasthenia gravis.

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