OBJECTIVE: Fibrocytes are circulating bone-marrow-derived cells that migrate to organs with ongoing repair or inflammation. In the target organ, the cells differentiate, become long and spindle-shaped, and are able to produce extracellular matrix components. In fibrotic diseases, the levels of fibrocytes are increased, both in circulation and the diseased tissue. In rheumatoid arthritis (RA), fibrocytes have been proposed to be involved in the spread of the disease and possibly in RA fibrotic manifestations, as can be seen in RA interstitial lung disease (RA-ILD). Therefore, we aimed to investigate a range of current RA treatment modalities (corticosteroids and conventional and biological disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs)) regarding their effect on in vitro fibrocyte differentiation.
METHODS: A total of 10 participants were included (5 patients with RA and 5 healthy controls). Peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) were isolated and cultured for 5 days with prednisolone, conventional DMARDs (methotrexate, sulfasalazine, and hydroxychloroquine), and biological DMARDs (etanercept, tocilizumab, adalimumab, abatacept, and rituximab). The numbers of fibrocytes were counted. Dose-response data for abatacept and tocilizumab were collected.
RESULTS: Abatacept and prednisolone significantly suppressed differentiation of PBMC into fibrocytes compared with control (p=0.02 and p<0.01, respectively) (n=10). In overall analysis (n=10), abatacept reduced fibrocyte levels with an average of 44% overall and 71% in the RA group compared with the control wells. Tocilizumab reduced the fibrocyte count by 63% overall and 45% in the RA group, although it was not significant (p=0.07 and p=0.06, respectively). Both tocilizumab and abatacept display a dose-response relationship.
CONCLUSION: Abatacept and prednisolone suppress the differentiation of mononuclear cells to mature fibrocytes in vitro in patients with RA, and data indicate a similar effect of tocilizumab; this was further supported by the observed dose-response relationship. Clinical trials are needed to compare the effect of these drugs on fibrotic RA manifestations, for example, RA-ILD.