Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a debilitating autoimmune disease resulting from autoantibodies that cause damage to synovial joints. Joint damage causes increased systemic inflammatory cytokines which may lead to aberrant hematopoiesis. Indeed, RA is accompanied by many hematological complications including anemia, cytopenias, and suppressed bone marrow function. Hematopoietic stem cells (HSC) at root of the blood system can respond to inflammatory signals by activating the cell cycle and preferentially generating myeloid cells. However, chronic inflammation can also lead to HSC dysfunction. Previous studies using genetic mouse models of RA have identified myeloid overproduction in this context; however, HSC long-term reconstitution activity was maintained.

To better understand hematopoietic alterations in RA, our group used the collagen induced arthritis (CIA) mouse model, which is inducible in adult mice and recapitulates many immunological features of the human disease, including elevated inflammatory cytokine levels in the bone marrow (BM) and peripheral blood (PB). Confirming prior reports, we found increased numbers of myeloid lineage cells in the PB and BM of CIA mice. We also found reduced erythroid and lymphoid lineage progenitor cell numbers in the BM, consistent with anemia and immunosenescence phenotypes in RA patients. Interestingly, these features were accompanied by a significant increase in the number of myeloid-biased multipotent progenitor-3 (MPP3) cells, suggesting increased activation of myeloid differentiation pathways. However, we found no changes to the number of activated (MPP1), short-term HSC (ST-HSC), or long-term HSC (LT-HSC) in CIA mice. Likewise, and in line with previous reports, long-term HSC potential was not reduced in CIA mice, as assessed by transplantation of either purified HSC or with unfractionated BM into irradiated recipient mice. While HSC from control and CIA donor mice displayed similar blood chimerism and lineage distribution over a 16-week period, we did observe increased proportions of donor-derived MPP3 in CIA recipient animals, further supporting an activation of myeloid HSC differentiation pathways. Overall, these results reveal underlying changes in the BM driving aberrant hematopoiesis, with the HSC pool remaining intact despite activation of a myeloid differentiation pathway.

To better understand how HSC are impacted by arthritic inflammation, we assessed the molecular state of control and CIA HSC using RNA-seq. We found 292 genes significantly upregulated and 237 genes significantly downregulated in CIA HSC. Analysis of these genes using Ingenuity, GSEA, and DAVID tools revealed broad downregulation of inflammatory and proliferation signaling pathways including IL-1β, NFκB, MYC, and ERK. Genes for G1/S cell cycle transition, transcription, protein translation, and proliferation pathways were also significantly downregulated in CIA HSC. On the other hand, genes corresponding to cell cycle arrest and negative regulation of transcription were significantly upregulated. Notably, we find that IL-1β, which is produced in the BM of CIA mice, is sufficient to induce this molecular program. We find that HSC in CIA mice have a global downregulation of transcripts required for activation and proliferation, and a global upregulation of transcripts that would promote quiescence. Hence, HSC are forced back into a quiescent state by broad downregulation of cell growth and proliferation genes even during chronic inflammation caused by RA.

Altogether, our data show that a mouse model of rheumatoid arthritis causes hematopoietic lineage skewing towards the myeloid lineage with simultaneous loss of lymphoid and erythroid lineage potential. Interestingly, in this chronic inflammatory setting HSC downregulate pathways involved in cytokine signaling, cell cycle activation, and translation. This mechanism can be triggered by chronic exposure to pro-inflammatory cytokines, and may serve to limit HSC proliferation and potential for damage in disease settings. These results may explain the relative rarity of outright bone marrow failure in autoimmune disease patients, while providing insight into mechanisms driving aberrant hematopoiesis in these individuals. Lastly, they provide functional evidence for cytokine blockade to normalize HSC function in the setting of RA and other chronic inflammatory diseases.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.