The development of T cell tolerance to self-antigens is imparted principally through negative selection events during thymic ontogeny. However, this tolerance may be limited to antigens that are expressed in the thymus, and additional mechanisms are probably required to regulate autoimmune responses to tissue-specific antigens. Autoimmune diabetes can be induced experimentally by treating susceptible stains of mice with multiple low doses of streptozotocin (STZ). In this report we show that transplantation of isolated islets of Langerhans into the thymuses of adult C57BL/KsJ mice will induce tolerance to the subsequent induction of autoimmune diabetes. This tolerance is tissue specific and thymus dependent. It was not induced by thymic transfer of adrenal tissue or by kidney transfer of islets. Furthermore, depletion of mature T cells was required and the tolerant state was abrogated by the adoptive transfer of normal splenocytes. It is interesting that pretreatment of the islets with STZ enhanced their ability to induce tolerance, and suggests that antigen shedding induced by tissue damage may facilitate transfer of islet antigens to tolerizing cells in the thymus. These findings indicate that thymic tolerance specific for tissue can be stimulated to occur in the presence of atopic tissue-specific intrathymic antigens. Elimination of disease-related T cells in the absence of global immunosuppression represents a novel approach for the prevention of autoimmune disease.

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