RA develops slowly over years. We tested for metabolic changes prior to RA onset using a large non-targeted metabolomics platform to identify novel pathways and advance understanding of RA development.
Two hundred and fifty-four incident RA cases with plasma samples drawn pre-RA onset in the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) cohorts were matched 1:2 to 501 controls on age, race, menopause/post-menopausal hormone use and blood collection features. Relative abundances of 360 unique, known metabolites were measured. Conditional logistic regression analyses assessed associations between metabolites and incidence of RA, adjusted for age, smoking and BMI, accounting for multiple comparisons. Subgroup analyses investigated seropositive (sero+) RA and RA within 5 years of sample collection. Significant metabolites were then tested in a female military pre-RA case-control study (n = 290).
In the NHS, metabolites associated with RA and sero+RA in multivariable models included 4-acetamidobutanoate (odds ratio (OR) = 0.80/s.d., 95% CI: 0.66, 0.95), N-acetylputrescine (OR = 0.82, 95% CI: 0.69, 0.96), C5 carnitine (OR = 0.84, 95% CI: 0.71, 0.99) and C5:1 carnitine (OR = 0.81, 95% CI: 0.68, 0.95). These were involved primarily in polyamine and leucine, isoleucine and valine metabolism. Several metabolites associated with sero+RA within 5 years of diagnosis were replicated in the independent military cohort: C5 carnitine (OR = 0.55, 95% CI: 0.33, 0.92), C5:1 carnitine (OR = 0.62, 95% CI: 0.39, 0.99) and C3 carnitine (OR = 0.57, 95% CI: 0.36, 0.91).
Several metabolites were inversely associated with incidence of RA among women. Three short-chain acylcarnitines replicated in a smaller dataset and may reflect inflammation in the 5-year period prior to sero+RA diagnosis.

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