VEGF and imaging of vessels in rheumatoid arthritis.
Angiogenesis is a prominent feature of rheumatoid synovitis. Formation of new blood vessels permits a supply of nutrients and oxygen to the augmented inflammatory cell mass and so contributes to perpetuation of joint disease. Vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) is a potent endothelial cell-specific growth factor that is upregulated by proinflammatory cytokines and by hypoxia. Serum VEGF concentrations are elevated in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and correlate with disease activity. Furthermore, serum VEGF measured at first presentation in RA is highly significantly correlated with radiographic progression of disease over the subsequent year. Power Doppler ultrasonography is a sensitive method for demonstrating the presence of blood flow in small vessels and there is a very close relation between the presence or absence of vascular flow signal on power Doppler imaging and the rate of early synovial enhancement on dynamic gadolinium-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of joints with RA. Images obtained by both dynamic enhanced MRI and power Doppler ultrasonography correlate with vascularity of synovial tissue as assessed histologically. In early RA, there is a striking association between joint erosions assessed on high-resolution ultrasonography and vascular signal in power Doppler mode. Collectively, these findings implicate vascular pannus in the erosive phase of disease and strongly suggest that proangiogenic molecules such as VEGF are targets for novel therapies in RA. Animal model data supports this concept. It seems likely that serological and imaging measures of vascularity in RA will become useful tools in the assessment of disease activity and response to therapy.