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Immunity. 2001 Oct;15(4):591-601.

Interferon-alpha-induced endogenous superantigen. a model linking environment and autoimmunity.

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Department of Genetics and Microbiology, University of Geneva Medical School, 1211 Geneva 4, Switzerland.


We earlier proposed that a human endogenous retroviral (HERV) superantigen (SAg) IDDMK(1,2)22 may cause type I diabetes by activating autoreactive T cells. Viral infections and induction of interferon-alpha (IFN-alpha) are tightly associated with the onset of autoimmunity. Here we establish a link between viral infections and IFN-alpha-regulated SAg expression of the polymorphic and defective HERV-K18 provirus. HERV-K18 has three alleles, IDDMK(1,2)22 and two full-length envelope genes, that all encode SAgs. Expression of HERV-K18 SAgs is inducible by IFN-alpha and this is sufficient to stimulate V beta 7 T cells to levels comparable to transfectants constitutively expressing HERV-K18 SAgs. Endogenous SAgs induced via IFN-alpha by viral infections is a novel mechanism through which environmental factors may cause disease in genetically susceptible individuals.

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