1. Although mast cell hyperplasia is a feature of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis, the extent and nature of mast cell activation in joint disease have not been clearly established.

2. We have investigated the levels of mast cell tryptase and histamine and also of eosinophil cationic protein in synovial fluid collected from 31 patients with rheumatoid arthritis, 14 with seronegative spondyloarthritis and nine with osteoarthritis. Two RIAs for tryptase were employed: one with monoclonal antibody AA5, which was found to bind equally well to both α and β isoforms on Western blots of the recombinant enzyme, and the other with antibody G5, which recognizes predominantly β-tryptase.

3. α-Tryptase, which is likely to be released constitutively from mast cells, appeared to be the major form in synovial fluid, as the assay with antibody AA5 detected appreciably more tryptase than that with antibody G5. β-Tryptase, which is released on anaphylactic activation of mast cells, was detected in 14 out of 45 synovial fluid samples studied, with concentrations of up to 12 μg/l measured by the G5 assay. The apparent levels of β-tryptase, but not of α-tryptase, were closely correlated with those of histamine in the synovial fluid. Patients with osteoarthritis appeared to have a greater proportion of β-tryptase in the synovial fluid than those with rheumatoid arthritis, as well as higher concentrations of histamine. Eosinophil cationic protein was present at high levels in the synovial fluid, although eosinophil numbers were low, and its concentrations were not correlated with the concentrations of the mast cell products.

4. These data suggest that anaphylactic degranulation of mast cells may have occurred to a greater extent in osteoarthritis than in rheumatoid arthritis, despite the relative lack of synovial inflammation in osteoarthritis. Although the eosinophil cationic protein detected may not reflect eosinophilic inflammation in the joint, the presence in synovial fluid of tryptase of both major forms, and of histamine, appears to indicate that mast cell products are secreted constitutively, as well as by processes of anaphylactic degranulation in rheumatoid arthritis, seronegative spondyloarthritis and osteoarthritis.

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