The polyclonal stimulation of T cells by bacterial superantigens is involved in the pathogenesis of the toxic shock syndrome in certain staphylococcal and streptococcal infections. Here we describe the onset and kinetics of superantigen-induced cytokine production in situ in spleens of normal BALB/c mice monitored at the level of cytokine mRNA expression by in situ hybridization. Messenger RNAs for interleukin 2 (IL-2), interferon gamma, and tumor necrosis factors (TNF) alpha and beta were not expressed at detectable levels in spleens of unstimulated animals but became visible already 30 min after intraperitoneal application of 50 micrograms staphylococcal enterotoxin B. All mRNA levels showed peak expression approximately 3 h after injection and a slow decrease up to 24 h after injection. Expression of the mRNAs was restricted to the T cell-dependent area of the periarteriolar lymphatic sheets of the spleen. Interestingly, TNF-alpha mRNA showed a biphasic response, the early appearing mRNA had the same localization as the other mRNAs, whereas after 3 h TNF-alpha mRNA showed a broader distribution indicating a second cell population producing TNF-alpha. The expression of IL-2 and TNF proteins in the serum increased in parallel to the observed mRNA changes with a slight delay. The presence of macrophages was not required for the expression of the cytokine mRNAs in the spleen as the expression was unchanged in macrophage-depleted mice. Only the second phase of TNF-alpha mRNA expression was abrogated in such animals. The expression of all mRNAs was completely suppressed by prior administration of cyclosporin A. These data show that nonphagocytic cells are the essential superantigen-presenting cells in vivo and indicate that at least part of the pathogenetic TNF-alpha is T cell derived.

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