To determine the pattern of cellular expression of donor MHC class I and class II antigens during the course of rat cardiac allograft rejection, ACI cardiac allografts transplanted to BN recipients were examined from day 2 to day 6 using immunohistologic and immunoelectron microscopic methods. We used both monomorphic and donor-specific mouse anti-rat MHC class I and class II mAbs in this study. In normal ACI hearts, MHC class I reactivity was confined to the vascular endothelium and to interstitial cells. Ongoing rejection was characterized by an increased donor MHC class I staining intensity of microvascular endothelium and induction of donor class I surface reactivity on cardiac myofibers. Donor MHC class II reactivity was exclusively confined to interstitial dendritic cells (IDC) in both normal ACI hearts and in rejecting allografts, although rejection was associated with marked fluctuations in class II IDC frequency. An early numerical depression in class II IDC present in both allografts and syngeneic heart grafts was attributed to a direct effect of the transplantation procedure. By days 3-4, allografts showed an absolute overall increase in donor class II IDC frequency, which was associated with the presence of multiple localized high-density IDC-lymphocyte aggregates. The lymphocytes present in the focal areas were predominantly of the class II-reactive Th cell subpopulation. These aggregates may thus represent the in vivo homologue of dendritic cell-lymphocyte clustering, which has been shown to be required for primary class II allosensitization in the rat and mouse in vitro. During the late phase of rejection, there was a marked numerical fall in donor class II IDC, which correlated with extensive overall graft destruction. This study has shown that acute rat cardiac allograft rejection can occur in the absence of donor MHC class II expression by allograft vascular endothelium and cardiac myofibers. The IDC, which are believed to represent the principal class II alloantigen presenting cells in the rat heart, remain the sole class II-expressing cellular constituents of the graft throughout the course of rejection.

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