We have analyzed B cell tolerance in a rheumatoid factor (RF) transgenic mouse model. The model is based on AM14, a hybridoma, originally isolated from an autoimmune MRL/lpr mouse that has an affinity and specificity typical of disease-related RFs from this strain. AM14 binds to immunoglobulin (Ig)G2a of the "a" allotype (IgG2aa) and not to IgG2ab. Thus, by crossing the transgenes onto an IgHa (BALB/c) background or to a congenic IgHb (CB.17) background, we could study the RF-expressing B cells when they were self-specific (IgHa) or when they were not self-specific (IgHb). These features make the AM14 model unique in focusing on a true autoantibody specificity while at the same time allowing comparison of autoreactive and nonautoreactive transgenic B cells, as was possible in model autoantibody systems such as anti-hen egg lysozyme. Studies showed that AM14 RF B cells can make primary immune responses and do not downregulate sIgM, indicating that the presence of self-antigen does not induce anergy of these cells. In fact, IgHa AM14 transgenic mice have higher serum levels of transgene-encoded RF than their IgHb counterparts, suggesting that self-antigen-specific activation occurs even in the normal mouse background. Since AM14 B cells made primary responses, we had the opportunity to test for potential blocks to self-reactive cells entering the memory compartment. We did not find evidence of this, as AM14 B cells made secondary immune responses as well. These data demonstrate that a precursor of a disease-specific autoantibody can be present in the preimmune repertoire and functional even to the point of memory cell development of normal mice. Therefore, immunoregulatory mechanisms that normally prevent autoantibody production must exert their effects later in B cell development or through T cell tolerance. Conversely, the data suggest that it is not necessary to break central tolerance, even in an autoimmune mouse, to generate pathologic, disease-associated autoantibodies.

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