Milk-borne mouse mammary tumor virus (MMTV) is a type B retrovirus that induces mammary carcinoma. Infectious MMTV, as well as genomically integrated mouse mammary proviruses, encode superantigens that are recognized by T cells that express appropriate T cell receptor V beta products. To determine the relationship between the superantigenic property of milk-borne MMTV and its in vivo infectivity, mice which were either positive or negative for expression of a transgene-encoded E alpha E beta class II major histocompatibility complex (MHC) product were exposed to milk borne C3H MMTV. Superantigen-mediated deletion of V beta 14-expressing T cells occurred only in E alpha transgene-positive mice, indicating that the deletion was E alpha E beta dependent. When mice were analyzed for viral infection by assaying viral p28 in the milk of recipient females, significant p28 levels were found only in E alpha E beta transgene-positive mice. Similarly, the presence of C3H MMTV LTR mRNA in mammary glands, as detected by PCR, paralleled p28 levels. These findings indicate that E alpha expression or the E alpha-dependent T cell response to viral superantigen is causally related to susceptibility to MMTV infection, and that lack of a permissive class II product can protect mice from virus infection.

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