What is the pathophysiology of complement deficiencies?

Updated: Apr 28, 2021
  • Author: Robert A Schwartz, MD, MPH; Chief Editor: Michael A Kaliner, MD  more...
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The complement cascade consists of 3 separate pathways that converge in a final common pathway. The pathways include the classical pathway (C1qrs, C2, C4), the alternative pathway (C3, factor B, properdin), and the lectin pathway (mannan-binding lectin [MBL]). The classical pathway is triggered by interaction of the Fc portion of an antibody (immunoglobulin [Ig] M, IgG1, IgG2, IgG3) or C-reactive protein with C1q. The alternative pathway is activated in an antibody-independent manner. Lectins activate the lectin pathway in a manner similar to the antibody interaction with complement in the classical pathway. These 3 pathways converge at the component C3. Although each branch is triggered differently, the common goal is to deposit clusters of C3b on a target. This deposition provides for the assembly of the membrane attack complex (MAC), components C5b-9. The MAC exerts powerful killing activity by creating perforations in cellular membranes. See the image below.

Complement pathways and deficiencies. Complement pathways and deficiencies.

Deficiencies in complement predispose patients to infection via 2 mechanisms: (1) ineffective opsonization and (2) defects in lytic activity (defects in MAC). Specific complement deficiencies are also associated with an increased risk of developing autoimmune disease, such as SLE.

An intricate system regulates complement activity. The important components of this system are various cell membrane–associated proteins such as complement receptor 1 (CR1), complement receptor 2 (CR2), and decay accelerating factor (DAF). A North African study of molecular basis of complement factor I deficiency in atypical hemolytic and uremic syndrome patients suggested that the Ile357Met mutation may be a founding effect. [7]

In addition to these cell surface–associated proteins, other plasma proteins regulate specific steps of the classic or alternative pathway; for example, the proteins factor H and factor I inhibit the formation of the enzyme C3 convertase of the alternative pathway. Similarly, the enzyme C1q esterase acts as an inhibitor of the classic pathway serine proteases C1r and C1s. Deficiency of any of these regulatory proteins results in a state of overactivation of the complement system, with damaging inflammatory effects. [8] Two clinical manifestations of such deficiencies are paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria and hereditary angioedema, both of which are discussed in other Medscape Reference articles (see Paroxysmal Nocturnal Hemoglobinuria and Angioedema).

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