Polyreactive IgM initiates complement activation by PF4/heparin complexes through the classical pathway

Sanjay Khandelwal, Joann Ravi, Lubica Rauova, Alexandra Johnson, Grace M. Lee, Jennifer B. Gilner, Sreenivasulu Gunti, Abner L. Notkins, Maragatha Kuchibhatla, Michael Frank, Mortimer Poncz, Douglas B. Cines and Gowthami M. Arepally

Key Points

  • Polyreactive IgM mediates complement activation by PF4/heparin complexes via the classical pathway.

  • Complement activation by PF4/heparin complexes varies widely among healthy donors.

Publisher's Note: There is a Blood Commentary on this article in this issue.


The mechanisms by which exposure to heparin initiates antibody responses in many, if not most, recipients are poorly understood. We recently demonstrated that antigenic platelet factor 4 (PF4)/heparin complexes activate complement in plasma and bind to B cells. Here, we describe how this process is initiated. We observed wide stable variation in complement activation when PF4/heparin was added to plasma of healthy donors, indicating a responder “phenotype” (high, intermediate, or low). Proteomic analysis of plasma from these healthy donors showed a strong correlation between complement activation and plasma immunoglobulin M (IgM) levels (r = 0.898; P < .005), but not other Ig isotypes. Complement activation response to PF4/heparin in plasma displaying the low donor phenotype was enhanced by adding pooled IgM from healthy donors, but not monoclonal IgM. Depletion of IgM from plasma abrogated C3c generation by PF4/heparin. The complement-activating features of IgM are likely mediated by nonimmune, or natural, IgM, as cord blood and a monoclonal polyreactive IgM generate C3c in the presence of PF4/heparin. IgM facilitates complement and antigen deposition on B cells in vitro and in patients receiving heparin. Anti-C1q antibody prevents IgM-mediated complement activation by PF4/heparin complexes, indicating classical pathway involvement. These studies demonstrate that variability in plasma IgM levels correlates with functional complement responses to PF4/heparin. Polyreactive IgM binds PF4/heparin, triggers activation of the classical complement pathway, and promotes antigen and complement deposition on B cells. These studies provide new insights into the evolution of the heparin-induced thrombocytopenia immune response and may provide a biomarker of risk.

  • Submitted March 2, 2018.
  • Accepted October 6, 2018.
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