Tissue destruction in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is predominantly mediated by matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), thereby generating protein fragments. Previous studies have revealed that these fragments include MMP-mediated collagen type I, II, and III degradation, citrullinated and MMP-degraded vimentin and MMP degraded C-reactive protein. We evaluated if biomarkers measuring serum levels of specific sequences of the mentioned fragments would provide further information of diagnostic and/or prognostic processes in early arthritis.

Ninety-two early arthritis patients (arthritis duration<1 year, DMARD naïve) were enrolled. Patients either fulfilled the ACR/EULAR2010 criteria for RA (n = 60) or had unclassified arthritis (UA) (n = 32). Patients fulfilling the RA criteria after 2 years follow-up were classified into non-erosive (n = 25), or erosive disease (n = 13). Concentrations of the biomarkers: C1M, C2M, C3M, VICM and CRPM were measured in baseline serum.

C1M, C3M and CRPM were able to discriminate between the UA and RA baseline diagnosis in 92 patients with an AUROC of 0.64 (95%CI 0.517 to 0.762), 0.73 (95%CI 0.622 to 0.838) and 0.68 (95%CI 0.570 to 0.795). C2M showed a potential for discrimination between non-erosive and erosive disease in 38 patients with an AUROC of 0.75 (95%CI 0.597 to 0.910). All of the applied biomarkers correlated with one or more of the disease activity parameters: DAS28, ESR, CRP, SJC66, TJC68 and/or HAQ.

This is the first study evaluating the applied biomarkers at this early stage of arthritis. C1M, C3M, CRPM might be the best diagnostic marker, whereas high levels of C2M indicated progression of disease at follow-up in early RA patients.