Rituximab, a B cell-depleting therapy, is indicated for treating a growing number of autoantibody-mediated autoimmune disorders. However, relapses can occur after treatment and autoantibody-producing B cell subsets may be found during relapses. It is not understood if these autoantibody-producing B cell subsets emerge from the failed depletion of pre-existing B cells or are generated de novo. To further define the mechanisms that cause post-rituximab relapse, we studied patients with autoantibody-mediated muscle-specific kinase (MuSK) myasthenia gravis (MG) who relapsed after treatment. We carried out single-cell transcriptional and B cell receptor (BCR) profiling on longitudinal B cell samples. We identified clones present prior to therapy that continued to persist during relapse. Persistent B cell clones included both antibody-secreting cells and memory B cells characterized by gene expression signatures associated with B cell survival. A subset of persistent antibody-secreting cells and memory B cells were specific for the MuSK autoantigen. These results demonstrate that rituximab is not fully effective at eliminating autoantibody-producing B cells and provide a mechanistic understanding of post-rituximab relapse in MuSK MG.
Ruoyi Jiang, Miriam L. Fichtner, Kenneth B. Hoehn, Minh C. Pham, Panos Stathopoulos, Richard J. Nowak, Steven H. Kleinstein, Kevin C. O'Connor