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Stress proteins, autoimmunity, and autoimmune disease.

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  • 1Thurston Arthritis Research Center, Division of Rheumatology and Immunology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill 27599.


At birth, the immune system is biased toward recognition of microbial antigens in order to protect the host from infection. Recent data suggest that an important initial line of defense in this regard involves autologous stress proteins, especially conserved peptides of hsp60, which are presented to T cells bearing gamma delta receptors by relatively nonpolymorphic class lb molecules. Natural antibodies may represent a parallel B cell mechanism. Through an evolving process of "physiological" autoreactivity and selection by immunodominant stress proteins common to all prokaryotes, B and T cell repertoires expand during life to meet the continuing challenge of infection. Because stress proteins of bacteria are homologous with stress proteins of the host, there exists in genetically susceptible individuals a constant risk of autoimmune disease due to failure of mechanisms for self-nonself discrimination. That stress proteins actually play a role in autoimmune processes is supported by a growing body of evidence which, collectively, suggests that autoreactivity in chronic inflammatory arthritis involves, at least initially, gamma delta cells which recognize epitopes of the stress protein hsp60. Alternate mechanisms for T cell stimulation by stress proteins undoubtedly also exist, e.g., molecular mimicry of the DR beta third hypervariable region susceptibility locus for rheumatoid arthritis by a DnaJ stress protein epitope in gram-negative bacteria. While there still is confusion with respect to the most relevant stress protein epitopes, a central role for stress proteins in the etiology of arthritis appears likely. Furthermore, insight derived from the work thus far in adjuvant-induced arthritis already is stimulating analyses of related phenomena in autoimmune diseases other than those involving joints. Only limited data are available in the area of humoral autoimmunity to stress proteins. Autoantibodies to a number of stress proteins have been identified in SLE and rheumatoid arthritis, but their pathogenetic significance remains to be established. Nevertheless, the capacity of certain stress proteins to bind to multiple proteins in the nucleus and cytoplasm both physiologically and during stress or injury to cells, suggests that stress proteins may be important elements in the "immunogenic particle" concept of the origin of antinuclear and other autoantibodies. In short, this fascinating group of proteins, so mysterious only a few years ago, has impelled truly extraordinary new lines of investigation into the nature of autoimmunity and autoimmune disease.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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