Immunology of Giant Cell Arteritis

Cornelia M. Weyand, Jörg J. Goronzy

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Giant cell arteritis is an autoimmune disease of medium and large arteries, characterized by granulomatous inflammation of the three-layered vessel wall that results in vaso-occlusion, wall dissection, and aneurysm formation. The immunopathogenesis of giant cell arteritis is an accumulative process in which a prolonged asymptomatic period is followed by uncontrolled innate immunity, a breakdown in self-tolerance, the transition of autoimmunity from the periphery into the vessel wall and, eventually, the progressive evolution of vessel wall inflammation. Each of the steps in pathogenesis corresponds to specific immuno-phenotypes that provide mechanistic insights into how the immune system attacks and damages blood vessels. Clinically evident disease begins with inappropriate activation of myeloid cells triggering the release of hepatic acute phase proteins and inducing extravascular manifestations, such as muscle pains and stiffness diagnosed as polymyalgia rheumatica. Loss of self-tolerance in the adaptive immune system is linked to aberrant signaling in the NOTCH pathway, leading to expansion of NOTCH1+CD4+ T cells and the functional decline of NOTCH4+ T regulatory cells (Checkpoint 1). A defect in the endothelial cell barrier of adventitial vasa vasorum networks marks Checkpoint 2; the invasion of monocytes, macrophages and T cells into the arterial wall. Due to the failure of the immuno-inhibitory PD-1 (programmed cell death protein 1)/PD-L1 (programmed cell death ligand 1) pathway, wall-infiltrating immune cells arrive in a permissive tissues microenvironment, where multiple T cell effector lineages thrive, shift toward high glycolytic activity, and support the development of tissue-damaging macrophages, including multinucleated giant cells (Checkpoint 3). Eventually, the vascular lesions are occupied by self-renewing T cells that provide autonomy to the disease process and limit the therapeutic effectiveness of currently used immunosuppressants. The multi-step process deviating protective to pathogenic immunity offers an array of interception points that provide opportunities for the prevention and therapeutic management of this devastating autoimmune disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)238-250
Number of pages13
JournalCirculation research
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 20 2023


  • T cell
  • aortitis
  • arteritis
  • macrophage
  • vasculitis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Cardiology and Cardiovascular Medicine


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