Apoptosis has been identified as a mechanism of pancreatic islet beta-cell death in autoimmune diabetes. Proinflammatory cytokines are candidate mediators of beta-cell death in autoimmune diabetes, and these cytokines can induce beta-cell death by apoptosis. In the present study, we examined whether transfection of human islet beta-cells with an anti-apoptotic gene, bcl-2, can prevent cytokine-induced beta-cell destruction. Human islet beta-cells were transfected by a replication-defective herpes simplex virus (HSV) amplicon vector that expressed the bcl-2 gene (HSVbcl-2) and, as a control, the same HSV vector that expressed a beta-galactosidase reporter gene (HSVlac). Two-color immunohistochemical staining revealed that 95+/-3% of beta-cells transfected with HSVbcl-2 expressed Bcl-2 protein compared with 14+/-3% of beta-cells transfected with HSVlac and 19+/-4% of nontransfected beta-cells. The bcl-2-transfected beta-cells were fully protected from impaired insulin secretion and destruction resulting from incubation for 5 days with the cytokine combination of interleukin (IL)-1beta, tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha, and interferon (IFN)-gamma. In addition, the bcl-2-transfected islet cells were significantly protected from cytokine-induced lipid peroxidation and DNA fragmentation. These results demonstrate that cytokine-induced beta-cell dysfunction and death involve mechanisms subject to regulation by an anti-apoptotic protein, Bcl-2. Therefore, bcl-2 gene therapy has the potential to protect human beta-cells in pancreatic islets, or islet grafts, from immune-mediated damage in type 1 diabetes.

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