An investigation of the regulation of specific anti-self responses was initiated with the development of an in vitro system in which spleen cells from NZB mice were stimulated by syngeneic mouse erythrocytes (MRBC) to produce MRBC-specific autoantibody-secreting cells. The response was measured by a modification of the focus-forming cell (FFC) assay, which enumerates cells secreting IgG, which specifically bind MRBC. Spleen cells from 9- to 12-mo-old NZB mice developed MRBC-specific FFC after 3 to 5 days in culture with MRBC. Few FFC were detected in the absence of MRBC in culture. Spleen cells from young (1- to 4-mo-old) NZB mice developed few if any FFC. Spleen cell populations containing T cells from young NZB mice suppressed this anti-MRBC response, whereas B cell populations from these young mice did not. In contrast, spleen cells, including T cell-enriched populations from old, Coombs'-positive mice were not capable under the same conditions of producing equivalent suppression of this in vitro autoimmune response. These data suggest that a population of suppressor T cells that may control the autoimmune anti-MRBC response in young NZB mice is lost, or else its activity is masked in old NZB mice that are actively producing anti-MRBC antibody.

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