MHC class II molecules carry the restriction determinants (RDs) for antigen presentation to antigen-specific Th lymphocytes. This restriction of T cell activation endows those molecules with a key role in the induction and regulation of antigen-specific immune responses. Moreover, class II molecules are the products of class II immune response (Ir) genes. The polymorphism of these Ir genes leads to genetically controlled differences in immuneresponsiveness between different individuals. An important human example is leprosy, in which HLA class II-linked Ir genes determine the immune response against Mycobacterium leprae, the causative organism of the disease. Since the immune response against M. leprae is entirely dependent on Th cells, the HLA class II-linked Ir gene products may well regulate the immune response by controlling the presentation of M. leprae antigens to Th cells. We therefore have investigated the HLA class II RD repertoire of M. leprae-reactive Th cell clones (TLC) by means of extensive panel and inhibition studies with fully class II-typed allogeneic APCs and well-defined HLA class II-specific mAbs. The TLC studied (n, 36) proliferated specifically towards M. leprae, produced IFN-gamma upon activation, and had the CD3+CD4+CD8- phenotype. The results show in the first place that the majority of the RDs for M. leprae reside on DR and not on DP or DQ molecules. This indicates a major role for DR molecules in the immune response to M. leprae and suggests that these molecules are the main products of M. leprae-specific Ir genes. Furthermore, since the expression of DR molecules is much stronger than that of DP and DQ molecules, these findings suggest that the localization of RDs for M. leprae on class II molecules correlates with the quantitative expression of these molecules. The observation that the RDs on DR molecules coded by a DR4 haplotype were situated only on those DR molecules that are known to be highest in expression can be explained in the same way. Second, four distinct RDs related with but not identical to the Dw13 allodeterminant were carried by the DR+DRw53- (alpha beta 1) molecules of a DR4Dw13 haplotype. Since the known amino acid residue differences between the allelic DR4 related Dw beta 1 chains cannot explain the observed RD-polymorphism, this observation suggests that multiple distinct RDs unique for the DR4Dw13 haplotype are expressed by these molecules. Only 2 of 36 TLC were not restricted by DR.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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