Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a systemic autoimmune disease with a dramatic sex bias, affecting 9 times more women than men. Activation of Toll-like receptor 7 (TLR7) by self-RNA is a central pathogenic process leading to aberrant production of type I interferon (IFN) in SLE, but the specific RNA molecules that serve as TLR7 ligands have not been defined. By leveraging gene expression data and the known sequence specificity of TLR7, we identified the female-specific X-inactive specific transcript (XIST) long noncoding RNA as a uniquely rich source of TLR7 ligands in SLE. XIST RNA stimulated IFN-α production by plasmacytoid DCs in a TLR7-dependent manner, and deletion of XIST diminished the ability of whole cellular RNA to activate TLR7. XIST levels were elevated in blood leukocytes from women with SLE compared with controls, correlated positively with disease activity and the IFN signature, and were enriched in extracellular vesicles released from dying cells in vitro. Importantly, XIST was not IFN inducible, suggesting that XIST is a driver, rather than a consequence, of IFN in SLE. Overall, our work elucidated a role for XIST RNA as a female sex–specific danger signal underlying the sex bias in SLE.


Jonathan D. Crawford, Hong Wang, Daniela Trejo-Zambrano, Raffaello Cimbro, C. Conover Talbot Jr., Mekha A. Thomas, Ashley M. Curran, Alexander A. Girgis, John T. Schroeder, Andrea Fava, Daniel W. Goldman, Michelle Petri, Antony Rosen, Brendan Antiochos, Erika Darrah


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