Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program




First Thesis Advisor

Ellen M. Gravallese, MD


Rheumatoid Arthritis, Autoimmunity, Bone Remodeling, Inflammation


Dissertations, UMMS; Arthritis, Rheumatoid; Autoimmunity; Bone Remodeling; Inflammation


Autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are associated with debilitating chronic inflammation, autoantibody production, articular bone erosions and systemic bone loss. The underlying mechanisms and cell types that initiate these diseases are not fully understood, and current therapies mainly address downstream mechanisms and do not fully halt disease progression in all patients. Moreover, previous studies have largely focused on the role of adaptive immunity in driving these diseases, and less attention has been given to the contribution of innate immune pathways such as DNA sensor signaling pathways in initiating and/or perpetuating autoimmunity and erosive inflammatory arthritis.

Detection of microbial nucleic acids by DNA sensors such as endosomal toll-like receptors (TLRs) and cytosolic sensors is an early form of antiviral defense. Upon detection of nucleic acid, TLRs dependent on Unc93B and cytosolic sensors dependent on the adaptor stimulator of interferon genes (STING) orchestrate production of type 1 interferons and pro-inflammatory cytokines to resolve infection. Additionally, the cytosolic DNA sensor absent in melanoma 2 (AIM2), which is not dependent on STING, also recognizes microbial DNA and coordinates the cleavage of pro-IL-1β. Previous studies have largely focused on the role of these DNA sensors in macrophages and dendritic cells in the context of antiviral immunity. In recent years, however, the inappropriate recognition of host nucleic acids by these sensors has been associated with several autoimmune diseases including RA.

This dissertation aims to delineate the mechanisms by which DNA sensors contribute to inflammatory arthritis and bone remodeling in the context of a murine model of autoimmunity. In DNase II deficient mice, excessive accrual of undegraded, endogenous DNA leads to robust production of type 1 interferons (IFNs) and proinflammatory cytokines. The high levels of type 1 IFNs result in anemia and embryonic lethality; therefore, the gene for the type 1 IFN receptor (IFNaR) has also been deleted so that the mice survive. DNase II-/- IFNaR-/- double knockout (DKO) mice develop erosive inflammatory arthritis, anti-nuclear antibodies, and splenomegaly not seen in the DNase II+/- IFNaR-/- (Het) control group. To evaluate whether cytosolic or endosomal DNA sensors contribute to the clinical manifestations of DKO mice, genes involved in TLR or cytosolic sensor signaling were deleted on the DKO background. Genetically altered mice include STING/DNaseII/IFNaR TKO (STING TKO), AIM2/DNase II/IFNaR TKO (AIM2 TKO), and Unc93b/DNase II/IFNaR TKO (Unc93 TKO) mice.

Our hypothesis was that the STING, AIM2, and/or Unc93 pathways would contribute to the autoimmune manifestations in DNase II deficient mice. Rigorous examination of inflammation in these lines revealed important roles for both the STING and AIM2 pathways in arthritis. Despite the substantial effects of the STING and AIM2 pathways on arthritis, STING TKO and AIM2 TKO mice still exhibited prominent autoantibody production. Interestingly, inflammation persisted in Unc93 TKO mice while autoantibody production to nucleic acids was abrogated. Collectively, these data indicate that innate immune pathways contribute to the initiation/perpetuation of inflammatory arthritis and demonstrate that cytosolic and endosomal pathways play distinct roles in the manifestations of autoimmunity. Moreover, they reveal a previously undescribed role for AIM2 as a sensor of endogenous nucleic acids in inflammatory arthritis. Thus, therapeutics that target the STING and AIM2 pathways may be beneficial for the treatment of inflammatory joint diseases.

While the role of hematopoietic cells in driving autoimmunity has been well established, the contribution of stromal elements to disease pathogenesis is less well understood. Therefore, we generated bone marrow chimeras to delineate the contribution of hematopoietic and non-hematopoietic cells to the various autoimmune manifestations in DKO mice. These studies revealed that both donor hematopoietic and host radioresistant cells are required for inflammation in the joint as well as for other features of autoimmunity in DKO mice, including splenomegaly, extramedullary hematopoiesis, and autoantibody production. This data demonstrates that stromal host cells play a major role in DNA-driven autoimmunity. Moreover, these results suggest that targeting not only hematopoietic but also stromal elements may be advantageous in the setting of inflammatory arthritis.

In the final chapter of this thesis, a role for innate immune sensor pathways in bone is described. The majority of inflammatory arthritides have been shown to lead to systemic loss of bone. Surprisingly, however, we found that DKO mice accumulate trabecular bone in the long bones over time as well as ectopic bone in the spleens, both sites of robust DNA accrual. Moreover, deficiency of the STING pathway abrogated this bone accumulation. Collectively, these data demonstrate that DNA accrual promotes dysregulated bone remodeling through innate immune sensing pathways. These findings are the first to reveal a role for the STING pathway in bone and may unveil novel targets for the treatment of diseases associated with bone disorders.



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