To explore the physiologic or pathologic roles of autoreactive T cells, we examined immunological functions of several autoreactive mouse T cell clones in vitro and in vivo. All of the T cell clones were Lyt-2-, L3T4+ and showed self-I region-restricted proliferative responses (one clone was self-I-E restricted, the other clones were self-I-A restricted). One clone derived from C57BL/6 mouse and reactive to the self-I-Ab product (clone bb1-2) showed cross-reactivity to the I-Ak product. Among four such auto-Ia-reactive T cell clones examined, one clone produced fairly large amounts of interleukin 2 (IL 2) in response to syngeneic stimulator cells, and mediated help for the in vitro cytotoxic T cell (CTL) responses of syngeneic thymocytes, whereas this clone did not mediate in vitro antibody responses of syngeneic B cells. The other three clones were producers of small amounts of IL 2 and did not mediate the in vitro CTL responses. Among the three clones, clone bb1-2 showed strong regulatory function, and clone kk-1 (B10.BR origin and self-I-Ak reactive) showed weak regulatory function in vitro antibody responses of syngeneic B cells. The physiologic or pathologic roles of autoreactive T cells in vivo were explored by injecting subcutaneously clone kk-1 T cells or clone bb1-2 T cells into the footpads of the respective syngeneic mice. Clone kk-1 T cells injected into syngeneic mice elicited swelling of the footpad and marked accumulation of mononuclear cells in the dermis, leaving the epidermis intact, as in the delayed-type hypersensitivity reaction. As a notable finding, clone bb1-2 T cells injected into syngeneic mice elicited marked swelling of the footpad and lichen planus-like skin lesions, i.e., infiltration of lymphocytes in the epidermis and epidermal cell damage. The lymphocytes infiltrating in the epidermis were evaluated, as were the injected clone bb1-2 T cells expressing the Lyt-1.2 phenotype, by examination of the skin lesions elicited in C3H/He mice (H-2k, Lyt-1.1, 2.1) by the clone T cells. Clone bb1-2 T cells exerted in vitro cytotoxicity against H-2b and H-2k target cells, whereas clone kk-1 T cells did not show any cytotoxic activity, indicating a correlation between the cytotoxic activity of clone bb1-2 T cells and their ability to elicit lichen planus-like lesions.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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