Superantigens have been implicated in the pathogenesis of type I diabetes and other immune-mediated diseases. We therefore tested the hypothesis of an abnormal reactivity of the immune system toward bacterial superantigens during the prediabetic phase. For this purpose, splenocytes from NOD (H-2g7) mice were exposed to two well-characterized superantigens: Staphylococcal aureus enterotoxin-B (SEB) and toxic shock syndrome toxin-1 (TSST-1). Cells from BALB/c (H-2d) and C57BL/6 (H-2b) mice as well as those from NON (H-2non) and NOR (H-2g7) mice were used as controls. After 72 h of co-culture with the superantigens or the mitogen concanavalin A (Con A), proliferative response and mitochondrial activity were determined. In the culture supernatants, the cytokines γ-interferon (IFN-γ) and interleukin 10 (IL-10) were measured. Striking similarities between NOD cells and major histocompatiblity complex (MHC)-identical NOR cells could be observed with regard to a low proliferative and mitochondrial response to SEB, accompanied by a normal response to TSST-1 and Con A, respectively. In addition, only NOD and NOR spleen cells were low producers of the T-helper 1 (Th1) cytokine IFN-γ in response to SEB. Conversely, abnormally high IFN-γ levels were induced by TSST-1 in NOD and NOR spleen cells. The cytokine response to Con A was also biased toward IFN-γ in both NOD and NOR. Since IFN-γ and IL-10 are crucial disease-promoting or -protecting mediators in prediabetic NOD mice, superantigens may affect pathogenesis by acting on the Th1/Th2 cytokine balance. The low responder status toward SEB in NOD spleen cells may be of pathogenetic relevance in view of recent findings that the insulin B-chain also interacts with the SEB binding site on MHC class II molecules. In conclusion, we show here that immune cells from mice with a diabetes-associated MHC type respond differently to common environmental superantigens than do immune cells from control strains.

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