A significant proportion of patients with B cell tumors secrete IgM mAb that recognize a carbohydrate autoantigen (li) on the red cell surface. The majority bear an idiotope (Id) that arises from heavy chains encoded by the VH4-21 gene segment, indicating unusual restriction of autoantibody specificity to a single VH gene. Polyclonal anti-li antibodies are also synthesized transiently by normal B cells following certain infections, and we have analyzed the role of the VH4-21 gene in encoding these antibodies. Levels of Id in sera of patients following infection with EBV or Mycoplasma pneumoniae were significantly raised (p < 0.01), and the Id-positive Ig reacted with patients' red cells. Id-positive B cell clones were established from four EBV-infected patients, and 6/6 of the IgM-Id agglutinated red cells. Nucleotide sequence analysis revealed involvement of the VH4-21 gene in all cases, with remarkably little change from the germ-line sequence. However, D segments were heterogeneous, and light chains differed. These results indicate that the same VH gene is used both by polyclonal autoantibodies produced in response to infection, and by B cell tumors. However, the lack of mutations would not appear to give an opportunity for Ag selection to drive affinity maturation of these autoantibodies.

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