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Arthritis Rheum. 1985 Jan;28(1):52-7.

Effects of L-canavanine on T cells may explain the induction of systemic lupus erythematosus by alfalfa.


Alfalfa sprouts can induce systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) in monkeys. This property of alfalfa sprouts has been attributed to their non-protein amino acid constituent, L-canavanine. Occurrence of autoimmune hemolytic anemia and exacerbation of SLE have been linked to ingestion of alfalfa tablets containing L-canavanine. In this report we show that L-canavanine has dose-related effects in vitro on human immunoregulatory cells, which could explain its lupus-inducing potential. These effects include: 1) diminution of the mitogenic response to both phytohemagglutinin and concanavalin A but not to pokeweed mitogen, as determined in both thymidine incorporation and cell cycle studies, and 2) abrogation of concanavalin A-induced suppressor cell function, which results in increased release of both IgG and DNA binding activity into supernatants by cells from normal subjects and SLE patients. These immunoregulatory effects of L-canavanine may explain the induction or exacerbation of SLE by alfalfa.

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