T cells that can respond to self-antigens are present in the peripheral immune repertoire of all healthy individuals. Recently we have found that unmanipulated SJL mice that are highly susceptible to EAE also maintain a very high frequency of T cells responding to an encephalitogenic epitope of a myelin antigen proteolipid protein (PLP) 139-151 in the peripheral repertoire. This is not due to lack of expression of myelin antigens in the thymus resulting in escape of PLP 139-151 reactive cells from central tolerance, but is due to expression of a splice variant of PLP named DM20, which lacks the residues 116-150. In spite of this high frequency, the PLP 139-151 reactive cells remain undifferentiated in the periphery and do not induce spontaneous EAE. In contrast, SJL TCR transgenic mice expressing a receptor derived from a pathogenic T cell clone do develop spontaneous disease. This may be because in normal mice, autoreactive cells are kept in check by an alternate PLP 139-151 reactive nonpathogenic repertoire, which maintains a balance that keeps them healthy. If this is the case, selective activation of one repertoire or the other may alter susceptibility to autoimmune disease. Since T cells are generally cross-reactive, besides responding to nonself-antigens, they also maintain significant responses to self-antigens. Based on the PLP 139-151 system, we propose a model in which activation with foreign antigens can result in the generation of pathogenic memory T cells that mediate autoimmunity. We also outline circumstances under which activation of self-reactive T cells with foreign antigens can generate selective tolerance and thus generate protective/regulatory memory against self while still maintaining significant responses against foreign antigens. This provides a mechanism by which the fidelity and specificity of the immune system against foreign antigens is improved without increasing the potential for developing an autoimmune disease.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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