M proteins that define the serotypes of group A streptococci are powerful blastogens for human T lymphocytes. The mechanism by which they activate T cells was investigated and compared with the conventional T cell mitogen phytohemagglutinin, and the known superantigen staphylococcal enterotoxin B. Although major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II molecules are required for presentation, there is no MHC restriction, since allogeneic class II molecules presented the bacterial protein to human T cells. Type 5 M protein appears to bind class II molecules on the antigen-presenting cells and stimulate T cells bearing V beta 8 sequences. Our results indicate that this streptococcal M protein is a superantigen and suggest a possible mechanism of its role in the pathogenesis of the postinfectious autoimmune sequelae.

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