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This article is part of the supplement: Lupus 2012: New targets, new approaches

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In situ cognate interactions between T-follicular helper cells and B cells characterize severe tubulointerstitial inflammation in human lupus nephritis

MR Clark*, M Giger, Y Jiang and V Liarski

  • * Corresponding author: MR Clark

Author Affiliations

University of Chicago, IL, USA

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Arthritis Research & Therapy 2012, 14(Suppl 3):A25  doi:10.1186/ar3959

The electronic version of this article is the complete one and can be found online at:

Published:27 September 2012

© 2012 Clark et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


In human lupus nephritis, the severity of tubulointerstitial inflammation on biopsy correlates with the risk of subsequent progression to renal failure [1]. Tubulointerstitial inflammation, and not glomerular inflammation, is associated with in situ clonal selection [2] and expansion of B cells reactive with antigens associated with inflammation. Certainly antigen recognition by the B-cell antigen receptor provides signals necessary for B-cell selection. However, additional second signals, derived from antigen-specific T cells or pattern recognition receptors, are required for B-cell proliferation. Therefore, we hypothesized that in situ B cells were receiving help from in situ T cells.

Methods and results

Consistent with our hypothesis, using four and five color confocal microscopy we observed CD4+ICOS+PD-1+ T cells in close apposition with CD20+ B cells. To quantitate the relationship between these presumptive TFH cells and B cells, we developed novel, automated and therefore unbiased algorithms (using Python/Linux) to define the location of cells expressing multiple surface markers and then to assess the shortest distances between the same or different cell types. These analyses revealed that B cells or TFH cells were never in close approximation with each other. In contrast, an average of 42% of TFH cells in renal biopsies from lupus patients were in very close contact with B cells. Three-dimensional imagining of these conjugates revealed that closely opposed TFH and B cells had formed atypical supramolecular activation complexes containing polarized TCR, LFA-1, MHC class II and ICAM-1 molecules. This suggests that the TFH and B cells in these conjugates are antigenically related. The difference between the observed T:B conjugate rate, and that predicted to arise by chance, was highly significant at up to P = 10-42. Finally, qPCR of mRNA captured from in situ ICOS+ T cells revealed that they had expression profiles consistent with them being bona fide TFH cells.


These data demonstrate that TFH cells are probably contributing to in situ humoral immune responses in lupus nephritis. Furthermore, our results indicate that quantitative imaging can be used to reveal important cell:cell interactions in human tissue.


  1. Hsieh C, Chang A, Guttikonda R, Brandt D, Utset TO, Clark MR: Tubulointerstitial inflammation and scarring predict outcome in lupus nephritis.

    Arthritis Care Res 2010, 63:865-874. OpenURL

  2. Chang A, Henderson SG, Liu N, Guttikonda R, Hsieh C, Utset TO, Meehan SM, Quigg RJ, Meffre E, Clark MR: In situ B cell-mediated immune responses and tubulointerstitial inflammation in human lupus nephritis.

    J Immunol 2011, 186:1849-1860. PubMed Abstract | Publisher Full Text | PubMed Central Full Text OpenURL