T cell receptor (TCR) transgenic mice specific for hen egg lysozyme (HEL) were crossed with mice expressing HEL on the thyroid epithelium, on pancreatic islet beta cells, or systemically. Depending on the pattern of HEL expression, deletion of double-positive thymocytes ranged from minimal to complete, and peripheral CD4 cells exhibited graded reduction in TCR expression, in vitro responsiveness, and in vivo helper ability. CD4 cells were least tolerant in TCR/thyroid-HEL and TCR/islet-HEL mice, which developed an extensive lymphocytic thyroiditis or insulitis that nevertheless did not eliminate HEL-expressing endocrine cells. Autoreactive CD4 clones thus escape the thymus under a range of circumstances, retain sufficient function to initiate subclinical autoimmune inflammation when self-antigens are concentrated in the thyroid or pancreas, and may regulate progression of subclinical inflammation to destructive autoimmune disease.
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