alpha-Melanocyte-stimulating hormone (alpha-MSH) is a proopiomelanocortin-derived peptide with known immunoregulatory effects, acting mainly via modulation of cytokine secretion by lymphocytes and monocytes. When applied epicutaneously, alpha-MSH inhibits both induction as well as elicitation of contact hypersensitivity (CHS) responses in mice. We questioned whether systemically administered alpha-MSH leads to the induction of hapten-specific tolerance. For this purpose, mice were injected i.v. with 75 microgram/kg synthetic bioactive alpha-MSH 2 h before sensitization (day 0) or challenge (day 6) with the hapten, trinitrochlorobenzene (TNCB). Intravenous administration of alpha-MSH 2 h before sensitization or 2 h before challenge resulted in a markedly reduced CHS response. To distinguish between unresponsiveness and tolerance, these mice were sensitized and challenged a second time, but in the absence of alpha-MSH. Mice that had been injected with alpha-MSH before the first sensitization (day 0), but not before challenge (day 6), were also unable to develop a significant CHS response after an additional sensitization and challenge with the same Ag 10 to 14 days later. In contrast, sensitization to the unrelated hapten, dinitrofluorobenzene, was unaffected in these mice, indicating the induction of hapten-specific tolerance by alpha-MSH. Moreover, regional lymph node cells obtained from alpha-MSH-treated mice 5 days after resensitization failed to produce IL-2 in response to trinitrobenzosulfonic acid, the water-soluble analogue of TNCB, whereas lymph node cells from TNCB-sensitized, not alpha-MSH-treated, mice as well as from mice treated with alpha-MSH before challenge readily exhibited trinitrobenzosulfonic acid-specific IL-2 production in this assay. Finally, in vivo tolerance induction by alpha-MSH could be abrogated by the administration of anti-IL-10 Ab at the site of sensitization. These data indicate that alpha-MSH, in addition to its suppressive effect on induction and elicitation of CHS, is able to induce hapten-specific tolerance in mice. Thus, alpha-MSH may be a significant regulatory mediator of cutaneous immune responses in vivo.

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