Because an increased expression of HLA class II antigens appears to be a central feature in local lesions of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), we have developed specific tools to quantify Ia expression in RA at both the protein and mRNA levels. An original dot immunobinding assay and a quick blot hybridization with chain-specific HLA class II probes allowed quantification of HLA DR antigens and chain transcripts on small-size samples of adherent synovial lining cells (ASLC) from normal individuals or RA patients. These methods associated with Western blot techniques detecting class II and beta-chain expression showed that ASLC from RA patients freshly put in short-term culture expressed greater amounts of class II transcripts and proteins than ASLC from controls. Class II proteins and mRNA rapidly disappeared in culture. Recombinant interferon-gamma (rIFN-gamma) induced their re-expression. A study of the kinetics and levels of the HLA-D products showed similar patterns of activation in RA patients and controls. A qualitative analysis of HLA class II antigens synthesized in ASLC after rIFN-gamma induction was performed by two-dimensional gel electrophoresis. It revealed a normal pattern for alpha- and beta-chains in ASLC from normal and RA patients, thus eliminating the possibility that abnormal protein structure of Ia antigen expressed on ASLC is responsible for the activation of T cell immune responses in RA. Nevertheless, the invariant chain exhibited a particular pattern in ASLC with additional basic spots, and this might interfere with transport and glycosylation of HLA class II antigens in such cells.

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