The in vivo function of C-reactive protein (CRP) is unknown. Among the in vitro functions assigned to CRP is the ability to activate complement via the classical pathway. To date, there is no evidence supporting that CRP exerts this function in vivo. We here show a novel approach to assess CRP-mediated complement activation in vivo, which is based on the property that activated complement factors C3 and C4 fix to CRP during complement activation induced by this acute phase protein. We developed specific ELISAs for complexes between CRP and C4b, C4d, C3b, or C3d. We established that in vitro complement-CRP complexes were formed only during CRP-dependent activation, and not during activation by other activators, even in the presence of high CRP levels. Circulating levels of complement-CRP complexes were undetectable in normal donors, but significantly increased in nine patients following implantation of a renal allograft. Importantly, levels of complement-CRP complexes did not change in these patients upon a bolus infusion of mAb OKT3, which induces activation of the classical complement pathway, demonstrating in vivo that complement-CRP complexes are not formed during CRP-independent activation of complement, even when CRP is elevated. We conclude that measurement of complement-CRP complexes provides a suitable tool to study CRP-mediated activation of complement in vivo. Furthermore, increased levels of these complexes occur in clinical samples, indicating that CRP may induce activation of complement in vivo.

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