Autoimmune diabetes mellitus affects >50% of diabetes-prone BB (DP BB) rats but <1% of diabetes-resistant BB (DR BB) rats. We report an outbreak of spontaneous diabetes among DR BB rats that coincided with serologic evidence of the onset of viral infection. This apparent link between a change in the environment and the expression of diabetes then led us to study the interaction of environmental exposure to viral pathogens in this disorder with virally seropositive and seronegative populations of BB rats and polyinosinic–polycytidylic acid (poly I:C), an interferon inducer known to accelerate diabetes onset in DP rats. We administered a cytotoxic anti-RT6 monoclonal antibody, poly I:C, or both to DR rats. Depletion of the RT6.1+T-lymphocyte population has previously been shown to induce diabetes and thyroiditis in DR rats. RT6 alone did not induce diabetes in seronegative DR rats, and poly I:C was only weakly effective, but nearly all animals given both reagents became diabetic. When given to seropositive DR rats, either reagent alone induced diabetes; when given to non-BB rats, neither agent was effective. Poly I:C also accelerated the onset of DP diabetes to a greater extent in seropositive than in seronegative rats. We conclude that expression of the genetic predisposition to diabetes present in all BB rats depends on cellular factors that include the presence or absence of regulatory (RT6+) T lymphocytes and modulatory environmental factors including exposure to viral pathogens.

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