Administered at a suitably low dose, the toxin streptozotocin (STZ) can trigger an autoimmune process leading to destruction of the β-cells of the pancreatic islets. In this study, we examined specific immunological reactions in mice before and during the development of STZ-induced autoimmune diabetes. We now report that the development of spontaneous autoantibodies to insulin can serve as a marker of susceptibility to a low dose of STZ. Susceptible male mice of the C57BL/KsJ strain manifested such anti-insulin antibodies, and resistant female mice did not. Administration of a low dose of STZ (five daily doses each of 30 mg/kg) induced transient hyperglycemia ∼20–30 days later, which temporarily remitted but was followed by intractable diabetes ∼2.5 months later. The diabetogenic process triggered by the low dose of STZ was associated with an increase in the level of anti-insulin antibodies bearing the Dana and Micha (DM) idiotype, later followed by the appearance of anti-idiotypic antibodies that peaked before the onset of diabetes. Antibodies and T-cells reactive to hsp60 (heat shock protein) were triggered by the low-dose STZ administration and persisted throughout the period that preceded clinical diabetes. T-cells reactive to the p277 peptide of hsp60 were also observed. Finally, active immunization to hsp60 caused transient hyperglycemia by itself and also aggravated the hyperglycemia induced by low-dose STZ. Thus, autoantibodies to insulin can indicate susceptibility to a toxic trigger of diabetes, and a low dose of a toxin can activate the insulin and hsp60 autoimmunity that has been detected previously in the spontaneous autoimmune diabetes of NOD strain mice.

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