Heparin induced thrombocytopenia (HIT) is an iatrogenic antibody-mediated disorder with a paradoxically high propensity for thrombosis. We have shown previously that human HIT IgGs and the HIT-like monoclonal antibody (MAb) KKO bind to platelet factor 4 (PF4) complexed with glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) on the surface of platelets and monocytes, initiating cell activation in vitro, thrombocytopenia in a transgenic mouse model, and thrombus formation in a laser microvascular injury model in vivo even in the absence of exogenous heparin. Monocytes bind PF4 and HIT Ab more readily than platelets because they express higher affinity GAGs, heparan sulfate and dermatan sulfate, in addition to chondroitin sulfate found on both cell types. To study changes in the structure of the monocytes that accompany HIT, we used scanning electron microscopy, confocal microscopy and flow cytometry to characterize the morphology and function of isolated human monocytes and mouse transgenic Fcg receptor IIA positive (FcγRIIA+) or wt (FcγRIIA-) monocytes in the absence or presence of platelets. We show by scanning electron microscopy that upon binding of pathogenic HIT Abs to PF4/GAG complexes on FcgRIIA expressing monocytes, they initiate profound remodeling of the cell membrane. Addition of 100 μg/ml recombinant human PF4 in the absence of HIT Abs initiates the activation process with the appearance of 177 ± 53 nm "knobs" on the surface of 70% of monocytes. Subsequent addition of the HIT-like monoclonal antibody KKO at 50 μg/ml dramatically alters the cellular surface with the appearance of large 701 ± 208 nm membrane "blebs" that were not seen on FcγRIIA-mouse monocytes. These large, membrane-associated structures likely engage FcγRIIA, clustering them in proximity to cell-bound immune complexes, which promotes cell activation that leads to thrombosis. These blebs increase in size over time and are then shed from the cells as monocyte-derived microparticles, which self-aggregate. As a result of shedding of these blebs, the monocytes lose much of their typical ruffled surface (only 67% of monocytes maintain ruffles in the presence of PF4 plus KKO, compared to 97% of control monocytes) and appear smoother, sometimes with pores indicating degranulation. In the presence of platelets, monocytes exposed to PF4 and KKO formed heterocellular aggregates in addition to these subcellular changes. In contrast to KKO, addition of the non-pathogenic MAb RTO not only did not induce blebbing, but largely inhibited PF4-induced changes in the monocyte surface. This suggests that RTO might prevent monocyte activation by interfering with PF4 tetramerization. Structural analysis of the shed microparticles by microscopy revealed that they had an average diameter of 356 ± 307 nm, with many larger particles and aggregates. Flow cytometry confirmed that the shed particles contain cell membrane lipids and receptors. Confocal microscopy showed uniform binding of labeled PF4 to the monocyte cell membrane followed by rapid clustering into large complexes after the addition of KKO, but not RTO. These studies affirm the centrality of cell surface PF4/GAG complexes in the pathogenesis of HIT and provide quantitative morphometric characteristics of the changes in the monocyte membrane structure. We propose that PF4 released from activated platelets binds to the surface of GAG-expressing monocytes in vivo, forming clusters of PF4/GAG complexes that likely promote antibody binding and cause monocyte activation through FcγRIIA along with large-scale remodeling of the cell membrane and shedding of procoagulant microparticles.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.