BACKGROUND: The recent success achieved with the use of B cell-depleting agents in some patients with minimal change nephrotic syndrome (MCNS) suggests an unexpected role for B lymphocytes in the pathogenesis of this immune-mediated glomerular disease. Nevertheless, no extensive B-cell phenotyping analysis has ever been performed in untreated adult patients soon after MCNS diagnosis.
METHODS: We investigated the distribution of the different B-cell subpopulations in 22 untreated adult patients with biopsy-proven MCNS [MCNS relapse (MCNS-Rel)]. We compared these data with those for 24 healthy controls, 13 MCNS patients in remission (with no specific treatment) and 19 patients with idiopathic membranous nephropathy (IMN).
RESULTS: Patients with MCNS-Rel or IMN had higher proteinuria and lower serum albumin and gammaglobulin levels (P < 0.0001 for all comparisons) than MCNS patients in remission. Plasmablasts were the only B-cell subsets present at significantly higher levels in MCNS-Rel patients than in the patients of the other three groups (P < 0.05 for all comparisons). The lower albumin levels and higher proteinuria levels were positively correlated with the percentage of circulating plasmablasts (Spearman test's ρ = -0.54, P = 0.01 and ρ = 0.65, P = 0.002, respectively). Similarly, the increase of immunoglobulin M (IgM) and the decrease of IgG levels were significantly associated with the percentage of plasmablasts in MCNS-Rel patients (Spearman's ρ = 0.36, P = 0.01 and Spearman's ρ = -0.60, P = 0.01, respectively). Increased production of interleukin (IL)-21, IL-6 and B-cell activating factor (BAFF) in the serum of MCNS-Rel patients was found significantly correlated with the percentage of plasmablasts (ρ = 0.72, P = 0.0002, ρ = 0.49, P = 0.04 and ρ = 0.62, P = 0.009, respectively).
CONCLUSIONS: An increase in the proportion of circulating plasmablasts seems to be a hallmark of untreated MCNS in adult patients. Further studies are required to more precisely determine the phenotype and functions of these cells.