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Diabetologia. 2013 Nov;56(11):2347-54. doi: 10.1007/s00125-013-3045-3. Epub 2013 Sep 19.

Do post-translational beta cell protein modifications trigger type 1 diabetes?

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Copenhagen Diabetes Research Center (DIRECT), Herlev University Hospital, Herlev Ringvej 75, 2730, Herlev, Denmark,


Type 1 diabetes is considered an autoimmune disease characterised by specific T cell-mediated destruction of the insulin-producing beta cells. Yet, except for insulin, no beta cell-specific antigens have been discovered. This may imply that the autoantigens in type 1 diabetes exist in modified forms capable of specifically triggering beta cell destruction. In other immune-mediated diseases, autoantigens targeted by the immune system have undergone post-translational modification (PTM), thereby creating tissue-specific neo-epitopes. In a similar manner, PTM of beta cell proteins might create beta cell-specific neo-epitopes. We suggest that the current paradigm of type 1 diabetes as a classical autoimmune disease should be reconsidered since the immune response may not be directed against native beta cell proteins. A modified model for the pathogenetic events taking place in islets leading to the T cell attack against beta cells is presented. In this model, PTM plays a prominent role in triggering beta cell destruction. We discuss literature of relevance and perform genetic and human islet gene expression analyses. Both direct and circumstantial support for the involvement of PTM in type 1 diabetes exists in the published literature. Furthermore, we report that cytokines change the expression levels of several genes encoding proteins involved in PTM processes in human islets, and that there are type 1 diabetes-associated polymorphisms in a number of these. In conclusion, data from the literature and presented experimental data support the notion that PTM of beta cell proteins may be involved in triggering beta cell destruction in type 1 diabetes. If the beta cell antigens recognised by the immune system foremost come from modified proteins rather than native ones, the concept of type 1 diabetes as a classical autoimmune disease is open for debate.

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