M proteins, the major virulence factor of group A streptococci, have been implicated in the pathogenesis of acute rheumatic fever (ARF) and other streptococcal related autoimmune diseases. A 22-kD fragment of M type 5 protein is a potent stimulant of human T cells and has recently been shown by our laboratory to belong to the newly designated family of superantigens. Using flow cytometry and the polymerase chain reaction, we demonstrate that this molecule reacts with subsets of human T cells expressing specific T cell receptor (TCR) V beta elements, namely V beta 2, 4, and 8. We employed similar techniques to analyze the TCR V alpha usage of pep M5-stimulated T cells. These studies revealed that the preferential usage of particular V alpha elements is not specific for the superantigen; rather, it may reflect the repertoire of the individual being tested. The expansion of a large number of T cells bearing specific TCR V beta sequences by M protein may account for its role in mediating the pathogenesis of post-streptococcal diseases. Furthermore, the preferential usage of TCR V alpha elements in certain individuals may be an important factor that predisposes them to development of self-reactivity.

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