BB rats develop spontaneous autoimmune insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus that is similar to human insulin-dependent diabetes. In this study, we used an in vitro islet cell cytotoxicity assay to study the possible role of natural killer (NK) cells and their soluble effector molecules in this disorder. First, the results demonstrated that in vivo treatment of acutely diabetic BB rats with anti-asialogangliosideM1 (an NK cell antiserum) but not with anti-T-lymphocyte antibodies reduces spleen cell cytotoxic activity to islets in vitro. Flow microfluorometry (FMF)-sorting experiments were then used to confirm that the splenic cytotoxic effector cell in acutely diabetic BB rats is a CD8+/CD5 NK cell. Further analysis demonstrated that both FMF-sorted NK cell populations from Wistar-Fu rt h rats and unfractionated spleen cells from athymic nu/nu rats with high intrinsic NK cell activity also exhibit high islet cell cytotoxic activity in vitro. Finally, we found that the kinetics and differential cytotoxic activity of NK cells toward islets in vitro could be mimicked by NK cell culture supernatants containing high levels of NK cytotoxic factor (NKCF). The islet cytotoxic activity of these culture supernatants was specifically inhibited by the addition of anti-NKCF monoclonal antibody. These results demonstrate that NK cells from diabetic and nondiabetic rats are cytotoxic to islet cells in vitro. They further suggest that this cytotoxic effect may be mediated in part through the production and release of soluble factors such as NKCF.

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