Plasma cells, also known as plasma B cells, are white blood cells that are produced by B lymphocytes in the lymphoid organs and express huge amounts of proteins called antibodies in response to certain substances called antigens. These antibodies are delivered from plasma cells to the target antigen (foreign substance) through blood plasma and the lymphatic system, where they begin neutralisation or destruction. B cells differentiate into plasma cells, which produce antibody molecules that are very similar to the precursor B cell’s receptors.
Plasma cells are large lymphocytes with abundant cytoplasm and a characteristic appearance on light microscopy. They have basophilic cytoplasm and an eccentric nucleus with heterochromatin in a characteristic cartwheel or clock face arrangement. Their cytoplasm also contains a pale zone that on electron microscopy contains an extensive Golgi apparatus and centrioles (EM picture). Abundant rough endoplasmic reticulum combined with a well-developed Golgi apparatus makes plasma cells well-suited for secreting immunoglobulins. Other organelles in a plasma cell include ribosomes, lysosomes, mitochondria, and the plasma membrane.
Terminally differentiated plasma cells express relatively few surface antigens, and do not express common pan-B cell markers, such as CD19 and CD20. Instead, plasma cells are identified through flow cytometry by their additional expression of CD138, CD78, and the Interleukin-6 receptor. In humans, CD27 is a good marker for plasma cells; naïve B cells are CD27-, memory B-cells are CD27+ and plasma cells are CD27++.
The surface antigen CD138 (syndecan-1) is expressed at high levels.
Another important surface antigen is CD319 (SLAMF7). This antigen is expressed at high levels on normal human plasma cells. It is also expressed on malignant plasma cells in multiple myeloma. Compared with CD138, which disappears rapidly ex vivo, the expression of CD319 is considerably more stable.
After leaving the bone marrow, the B cell acts as an antigen-presenting cell (APC) and internalizes offending antigens, which are taken up by the B cell through receptor-mediated endocytosis and processed. Pieces of the antigen (which are now known as antigenic peptides) are loaded onto MHC II molecules, and presented on its extracellular surface to CD4+ T cells (sometimes called T helper cells). These T cells bind to the MHC II-antigen molecule and cause activation of the B cell. This is a type of safeguard to the system, similar to a two-factor authentication method. First, the B cells must encounter a foreign antigen and are then required to be activated by T helper cells before they differentiate into specific cells.
Upon stimulation by a T cell, which usually occurs in germinal centers of secondary lymphoid organs such as the spleen and lymph nodes, the activated B cell begins to differentiate into more specialized cells. Germinal center B cells may differentiate into memory B cells or plasma cells. Most of these B cells will become plasmablasts (or “immature plasma cells”), and eventually plasma cells, and begin producing large volumes of antibodies. Some B cells will undergo a process known as affinity maturation.This process favors, by selection for the ability to bind antigen with higher affinity, the activation and growth of B cell clones able to secrete antibodies of higher affinity for the antigen.
Immature plasma cells
The most immature blood cell that is considered of plasma cell lineage is the plasmablast. Plasmablasts secrete more antibodies than B cells, but less than plasma cells. They divide rapidly and are still capable of internalizing antigens and presenting them to T cells. A cell may stay in this state for several days, and then either die or irrevocably differentiate into a mature, fully differentiated plasma cell. Differentiation of mature B cells into plasma cells is dependent upon the transcription factors Blimp-1/PRDM1 and IRF4