Modulation in major histocompatibility complex (MHC) gene expression correlates with the inflammatory reactions that occur during graft rejection and autoimmune disease. We analyzed the expression of class I and II MHC genes in the pancreatic islets of prediabetic and newly diabetic BB rats by immunohistochemistry of tissue sections and Northern blotting of RNA extracted from isolated islets. We show that enhanced levels of MHC class I heavy-chain RNA are present in pancreatic islets before overt inflammation and the onset of insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM) in the spontaneously diabetic BB rat. Immunohistochemical analysis revealed enhanced class I antigen expression throughout the pancreatic islets of newly diabetic animals but no induction of class II antigen on endocrine cells within the islet. Varying degrees of inflammatory infiltrate were observed in the sections exhibiting enhanced class I antigen expression or in nearby serial sections. Southern blot analysis revealed no restriction-fragment-length polymorphism or amplification of the endogenous class I heavy-chain genes compared with those of seroidentical disease-resistant Wistar-Furth rats. I-Aα and I-Eα hybridizing RNA appeared de novo before overt diabetes, although concomitantly with T-lymphocyte-receptor β-chain and interferon-γ gene hybridizing RNA and after MHC class I heavy-chain RNA enhancement was observed. These data indicate the possibility that enhanced class I heavy-chain gene expression plays a role in the progression of IDDM.

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