NOD mice develop spontaneous IDDM as a result of T-cell–mediated autoimmune destruction of pancreatic β-cells. It is not known why these T-cells become autoreactive, nor is it clear whether the breakdown in self-tolerance reflects a general problem in T-cell development or a selective defect in an as yet undefined regulatory cell population. In this study, we showed that NOD mice, although relatively normal with regard to most thymocyte subsets, exhibit a marked deficiency in αβTCR+CD4CD8 (αβ+DN) T-cells in the thymus and, to a lesser extent, in the periphery. These T-cells have been termed NKT cells (NK1.1+-like T-cells) because they share some cell surface markers with conventional natural killer (NK) cells. To examine the role of these cells in the pathogenesis of IDDM, semiallogeneic or syngeneic double-negative (DN) thymocytes, enriched for NKT cells, were transferred into intact 4-week-old NOD recipients; the onset of diabetes was then monitored over the ensuing 30 weeks. Mice receiving NKT-enriched thymocytes did not develop diabetes, whereas mice receiving unfractionated thymocytes or phosphate-buffered saline developed diabetes at the normal rate. NKT cells represent a distinct T-cell lineage that has been shown to play a role in immunoregulation in vivo. The deficiency of these cells observed in NOD mice may therefore contribute to destruction of pancreatic islet cells by conventional T-cells.

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