Clonal heterogeneity of thymic B cells from early-onset myasthenia gravis patients with antibodies against the acetylcholine receptor

Kathleen Vrolix, Judith Fraussen, Mario Losen, Jo Stevens, Konstantinos Lazaridis, Peter C. Molenaar, Veerle Somers, Maria Alma Bracho, Rozen Le Panse, Piet Stinissen, Sonia Berrih-Aknin, Jos G. Maessen, Leen Van Garsse, Wim A. Buurman, Socrates J. Tzartos, Marc H. De Baets, Pilar Martinez-Martinez*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Myasthenia gravis (MG) with antibodies against the acetylcholine receptor (AChR-MG) is considered as a prototypic autoimmune disease. The thymus is important in the pathophysiology of the disease since thymus hyperplasia is a characteristic of early-onset AChR-MG and patients often improve after thymectomy. We hypothesized that thymic B cell and antibody repertoires of AChR-MG patients differ intrinsically from those of control individuals. Using immortalization with Epstein Barr Virus and Toll-like receptor 9 activation, we isolated and characterized monoclonal B cell lines from 5 MG patients and 8 controls. Only 2 of 570 immortalized B cell clones from MG patients produced antibodies against the AChR (both clones were from the same patient), suggesting that AChR-specific B cells are not enriched in the thymus. Surprisingly, many B cell lines from both AChR-MG and control thymus samples displayed reactivity against striated muscle proteins. Striational antibodies were produced by 15% of B cell clones from AChR-MG versus 6% in control thymus. The IgV(H) gene sequence analysis showed remarkable similarities, concerning V-H family gene distribution, mutation frequency and CDR3 composition, between B cells of AChR-MG patients and controls. MG patients showed clear evidence of clonal B cell expansion in contrast to controls. In this latter aspect, MG resembles multiple sclerosis and clinically isolated syndrome, but differs from systemic lupus erythemitosus. Our results support an antigen driven immune response in the MG thymus, but the paucity of AChR-specific B cells, in combination with the observed polyclonal expansions suggest a more diverse immune response than expected.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)101-112
JournalJournal of Autoimmunity
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2014


  • Myasthenia gravis
  • B-cell immortalization
  • Striational autoantibodies
  • Clonal expansion


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