Despite the known dangers of contact allergens and their long-lasting use as models in immunology, their molecular mode of action largely remains unknown. In this study, we report that a contact allergen, 1-chloro-2,4-dinitrobenzene (DNCB), elicits contact hypersensitivity through binding the protein we identify. Starting from an unbiased sampling of proteomics, we found nine candidate proteins with unique DNCB-modified peptide fragments. More than half of these fragments belonged to heat shock protein 90 (HSP90), a common stress-response protein and a damage-associated molecular pattern, and showed the highest probability of incidence. Inhibition and short hairpin RNA knockdown of HSP90 in human monocyte cell line THP-1 suppressed the potency of DNCB by >80%. Next, we successfully reduced DNCB-induced contact hypersensitivity in HSP90-knockout mice, which confirmed our findings. Finally, we hypothesized that DNCB-modified HSP90 activates the immune cells through HSP90’s receptor, CD91. Pretreatment of CD91 in THP-1 cell lines and BALB/c mice attenuated the potency of DNCB, consistent with the result of HSP90-knockout mice. Altogether, our data show that DNCB-HSP90 binding plays a role in mediating DNCB-induced contact hypersensitivity, and the activation of CD91 by DNCB-modified HSP90 proteins could mediate this process.

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