Nivolumab-induced synovitis is characterized by florid T cell infiltration and rapid resolution with synovial biopsy-guided therapy

William Murray-Brown, Tom D. Wilsdon, Helen Weedon, Susanna Proudman, Shawgi Sukumaran, Sonja Klebe, Jennifer G. Walker, Malcolm D. Smith, Mihir D. Wechalekar

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Background Immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs) are associated with rheumatic and musculoskeletal immune-related adverse events (irAEs) in 5%-20% of patients. Currently, patients refractory to corticosteroids and conventional disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (cDMARD) are treated with biological DMARDs (bDMARDs) targeting tumor necrosis factor α (TNFα) and interleukin-6, although without a clear biological rationale. Synovial tissue (ST) biopsy presents a valuable opportunity to investigate irAE pathogenesis and appropriately stratify bDMARD use in refractory irAE patients. Case presentation We provide the first report of comparative, parallel ST and synovial fluid (SF) analyses of severe, cDMARD-refractory, seronegative polyarthritis, classified as a grade 3 irAE occurring in response to nivolumab treatment for metastatic squamous cell lung cancer, in comparison with ST and SF from patients with untreated rheumatoid arthritis (RA). We investigated immunohistochemical labeling of ST cytokine expression as a biological rationale for selecting therapy. Flow cytometric analysis of lymphocytes from ST, SF and blood collected before and after synovial biopsy-guided therapy, in comparison with RA, were evaluated for insights into the immunopathogenesis of irAE. Immunolabeling of ST demonstrated an excess of TNFα cytokine expression. Subsequent treatment with infliximab resulted in resolution of inflammatory symptoms and a significant reduction in C reactive protein levels. Flow cytometric analysis of synovial infiltrates indicated absence of programmed cell death protein-1 (PD-1) receptor positivity despite cessation of nivolumab approximately 200 days prior to the analyzes. Conclusions A deeper understanding of the immunopathogenetic basis of immune activation in irAEs is required in order to select therapy that is likely to be the most effective. This is the first report investigating parallel blood, ST and SF in ICI-induced severe rheumatic irAE. Use of a bDMARD directed by the dominant inflammatory cytokine achieved resolution of synovitis while maintaining cancer remission.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere000281
Number of pages6
JournalJournal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2020

Bibliographical note

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited, appropriate credit is given, any changes made indicated, and the use is non-commercial. See


  • rheumatology
  • nivolumab-induced synovitis
  • T cell infiltration
  • biopsy-guided therapy
  • Immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICI)
  • antirheumatic agents


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