The NOD mouse is a model for human insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. The disease is thought to have an autoimmune etiology because it is T-cell dependent and is characterized by mononuclear cell infiltration in and around the pancreatic islets of Langerhans. The mechanism by which autoreactive T-cells are generated is not fully understood, but it has been postulated that there is a breakdown in self-tolerance induction during intrathymic T-cell maturation. The aim of these studies was to determine whether transplantation of NOD thymus into diabetes-resistant mouse strains would generate islet-reactive T-cells. Neonatal thymus was pretreated either by irradiation or culture in 2-deoxyguanosine (dGua) and then transplanted into athymic BALB/c, CBA, and C57BL/6 nude mice. Generally, insulitis was not seen in the CBA or C57BL/6 recipients, but was found in 56% of BALB/c mice transplanted with an irradiated NOD thymus and in 46% BALB/c mice with a dGua-treated thymus. Similar experiments in which a NOD fetal pancreas was transplanted into nude BALB/c mice before NOD thymus transplantation showed a similar frequency and severity of insulitis in both the host pancreas and grafted NOD pancreas. This suggests that NOD islets are no more prone than the host islets to autoimmune attack and do not exacerbate insulitis. Overall, the data suggest that a defect of thymic origin (and correlating with the thymic epithelium) in the NOD mouse can lead to the development of autoreactive T-cells and specific islet cell damage. Autoreactivity appears to be restricted to the H-2Kd allele that is shared by NOD and BALB/c mice.

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