In islet cells isolated from normal outbred Wistar rats, the known high vulnerability of islet cells toward oxygen radicals or nitric oxide can be abolished by inducing a stress response, such as by heat shock. We show here that islet cells from diabetes-prone BB rats are unable to mount such a protective response. Islet cells from diabetes-prone BB rats without recognizable insulitis were heat stressed. Subsequently, cells were exposed to nitric oxide, to oxygen radicals, or to the β-cell toxin streptozotocin. While prior heat shock substantially increased the survival of toxin-treated Wistar rat islet cells, no protective stress response was noted for islet cells from diabetes-prone BB rats. Islet cells from diabetes-resistant BB rats were protected by heat stress to the same extent as Wistar rats. A survey of four additional major histocompatibility complex (MHC)-disparate rat strains confirmed the existence of a low and high responder type to stress. Parallel analysis of heat shock protein (hsp)70 induction by Western blot showed a low and high hsp70 response phenotype. A high hsp70 response coincided with a protective stress response. The presence (or absence) of a protective stress response correlated with the preservation (or loss) of intracellular NAD+ in toxin-treated islet cells. The lack of a protective stress response in islet cells from diabetes-prone BB rats, but not in diabetes-resistant BB rats, may promote β-cell lysis and autoantigen release, and hence could be important for initiation or propagation of the disease process.

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