While B cells are known to contribute to the pathogenesis of chronic graft-versus-host disease (cGVHD) in mice, it has been challenging to elucidate intrinsic mechanisms of tolerance loss in patients. To identify distinct and potentially targetable B-cell subsets in cGVHD, we employed single-cell RNA-Seq along with an unsupervised hierarchical clustering analysis, targeting 10,000 single B cells from each of eight patients who were >12 months post-allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HCT) and either had active cGVHD manifestations (n=4) or never developed cGVHD (n=4). Bioinformatics analysis of pooled cell data (using R with Seurat extension package) identified 6 major B cell clusters common to all patients (Figure 1A). "Intra-cluster" gene comparison (using R package DESeq2, false-discovery rate 0.05) revealed numerous differentially expressed genes between patient groups. The greatest number of differentially-expressed genes occurred in a cluster referred to herein as 'Cluster 6' (Figure 1A, in yellow with asterisk). Within Cluster 6, B cells from active cGVHD patients expressed significantly increased ITGAX (CD11c, Padj =0.007), TNFRSF13B (TACI, a receptor for BAFF, Padj =0.003), IGHG1 (IgG1, Padj =9.3e-06) and IGHG3 (IgG3, Padj =1.7e-12), along with 44 additional genes (to be discussed). Thus, Cluster 6 in cGVHD patients may represent a CD11cpos, BAFF-responsive B cell subset primed to undergo isotype switching in response to alloantigen. Flow cytometry analysis on PBMCs from an independent HCT patient cohort (n=10) confirmed that CD11cpos B cells were indeed significantly expanded in cGVHD (P < 0.01, Figure 1B), and revealed these B cells were also TACIpos, CD19high, forward scatter high (FSChigh) blast-like cells (Figure 1C). We found that these CD11cpos B cells had mixed expression of CD21, CD27, IgD and CD24 (Figure 1C). Remarkably, other recent studies on bulk patient B cells have suggested that similar CD11cposCD21negCD19highT-BETpos cells are critical drivers of humoral autoimmunity in diseases including systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE; Scharer et al. 2019; Rubtsova et al. 2017; Rubtsov et al. 2011). This subset now identified by single-cell RNA-Seq is consistent with a population of TACIhigh B cells that produced IgG in response to BAFF treatment ex vivo (Sarantopoulos 2009). Data suggest we have identified functionally distinct and potentially targetable B cell subpopulations. We are employing functional assays to determine whether the additional molecular pathways now elucidated account for our previous work showing greater ex vivo B cell survival rates and hyper-responsiveness to surrogate antigen (Allen et al. 2012, 2014), certain TLR agonists (Suthers et al. 2017), and NOTCH ligand (Poe et al. 2017).
In addition to more deeply characterizing B-cell subsets in cGVHD, our single-cell RNA-Seq analyses identified several genes significantly altered across multiple B cell clusters in the cGVHD group, implicating more broad alterations of some genes in this disease. Among these is CKS2, a critical cell cycle regulator, which was significantly increased in cGVHD B cells (Padj 1.0e-10 to 0.018, depending on the cluster evaluated). Increased CKS2 expression was validated by qPCR analysis on B cells from a separate HCT patient cohort with or without cGVHD (P < 0.001, Figure 1D), suggesting that the majority of cGVHD B cells are primed to enter the cell cycle at multiple stages of differentiation when exposed to the proper stimuli.
In summary, we used an unbiased approach to identify and further characterize an extrafollicular CD11cposTACIposCD19high B cell population in cGVHD patients that appears to be activated and undergoing active IgG isotype switching. This plasmablast-like B cell population is potentially amenable to therapeutic intervention to prevent pathogenic antibody production. Importantly, we also identify gene alterations across the cGVHD peripheral B cell compartment that potentially underpin promotion of hyperactivated B cells in this disease. Therapeutic strategies to target these pathways will also be discussed. This work was supported by a National Institutes of Health grant, R01HL129061.
Ho: Omeros Corporation: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees; Jazz Pharmaceuticals: Research Funding; Jazz Pharmaceuticals: Consultancy. Horwitz:Abbvie Inc: Membership on an entity's Board of Directors or advisory committees. Rizzieri:Celgene, Gilead, Seattle Genetics, Stemline: Other: Speaker; AbbVie, Agios, AROG, Bayer, Celgene, Gilead, Jazz, Novartis, Pfizer, Sanofi, Seattle Genetics, Stemline, Teva: Other: Advisory Board; AROG, Bayer, Celgene, Celltron, Mustang, Pfizer, Seattle Genetics, Stemline: Consultancy; Stemline: Research Funding.