Brown-Norway (BN) rats injected with HgCl2 develop a systemic autoimmune disease associated with a polyclonal B cell activation, due to autoreactive T cells specific for self-class II molecules, while Lewis (LEW) rats injected with HgCl2 do not exhibit autoimmunity and develop a non-antigen-specific, CD8-mediated immunosuppression assessed by a depression of T cell functions, and a protection against experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE). Resistance to HgCl2-induced autoimmunity is not due to these suppressor cells since treatment with an anti-CD8 monoclonal antibody (mAb) did not allow autoimmunity to appear. The absence of autoimmunity in this strain could result from the absence of autoreactive T cells, or from quantitative or qualitative differences of these cells between susceptible and resistant strains. In the present study, we show that CD4+ anti-class II T cells are present in HgCl2-injected LEW rats and are as frequent as in BN rats when assessed by limiting dilution analysis. LEW CD4+ autoreactive T cell lines were derived. They proliferated in the presence of normal class II-bearing cells, secreted interleukin 2, and did not induce B cells to produce immunoglobulins. Transfer of one of these lines, LEW Hg A, into normal LEW rats led to the appearance of CD8+ cells responsible for a non-antigen-specific immunosuppression that induced complete protection from EAE. Immunosuppression was abrogated after treatment with an anti-CD8 mAb. In vitro, CD8+ cells from rats injected with the LEW Hg A T cell line proliferated in the presence of activated T cells whatever their origin. We conclude that HgCl2 induces CD4+ autoreactive T cells that proliferate in the presence of class II+ cells in susceptible BN as well as in resistant LEW rats. But while these cells collaborate with B cells to produce autoantibodies in BN rats, they initiate in LEW rats a suppressor circuit involving antiergotypic CD8+ suppressor cells.

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