Giant cell arteritis (GCA) is a granulomatous vasculitis affecting persons over 50 years of age. The inflammatory infiltrate, which is targeted at the aorta and its proximal branches, includes activated CD4+ helper T cells, histiocytes, and giant cells. To investigate whether the genetic polymorphism of the HLA-DRB1 genes contributes to the local accumulation of activated T cells, we have analyzed both HLA-DRB1 alleles in a cohort of 42 patients with biopsy-proven GCA. The majority of patients (60%) expressed the B1*0401 or B1*0404/8 variant of the HLA-DR4 haplotype, both of which also represent the major genetic factors underlying the disease association in RA. GCA patients negative for the disease-linked HLA-DR4 alleles were characterized by a nonrandom distribution of HLA-DRB1 alleles. Sequence comparison among the allelic products identified in the GCA cohort demonstrated heterogeneity for the sequence polymorphism of the third hypervariable region (HVR), but homology for the polymorphic residues within the HVR2 of the HLA-DRB1 gene. The GCA patients shared a sequence motif spanning amino acid positions 28-31 of the HLA-DR beta 1 chain. In the structural model for HLA-DR molecules, this sequence motif can be mapped to the antigen-binding site of the HLA complex, suggesting a crucial role of antigen selection and presentation in GCA. In contrast, the sequence polymorphism linked to RA has been mapped to the HVR3 of the HLA-DRB1 gene and translates into a distinct domain of the HLA-DR molecule, the alpha-helical loop surrounding the antigen-binding groove. A consecutive case series study demonstrated that GCA and RA rarely co-occurred, supporting the interpretation that distinct functional domains of the HLA-DR molecule are implicated in the pathomechanisms of these two autoimmune diseases.
C M Weyand, K C Hicok, G G Hunder, J J Goronzy