A major problem in autoimmunity has been identification of the earliest events that lead to breach of tolerance. Although there have been major advances in dissecting effector pathways and the multilineage immune responses to mitochondrial self-antigens in primary biliary cholangitis, the critical links between environmental factors and tolerance remain elusive. We hypothesized that environmental xenobiotic modification of the E2 subunit of the pyruvate dehydrogenase (PDC-E2) inner lipoyl domain can lead to loss of tolerance to genetically susceptible hosts. Previously we demonstrated that serum anti-PDC-E2 autoantibodies cross-react with the chemical xenobiotics 2-octynoic acid and 6,8-bis (acetylthio) octanoic acid and further that there is a high frequency of PDC-E2-specific peripheral plasmablasts. Herein we generated 104 recombinant monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) based on paired heavy-chain and light-chain variable regions of individual plasmablasts derived from primary biliary cholangitis patients. We identified 32 mAbs reactive with native PDC-E2, including 20 specific for PDC-E2 and 12 cross-reactive with both PDC-E2 and 2-octynoic acid and 6,8-bis (acetylthio) octanoic acid. A lower frequency of replacement somatic hypermutations, indicating a lower level of affinity maturation, was observed in the complementarity-determining regions of the cross-reactive mAbs in comparison to mAbs exclusively recognizing PDC-E2 or those for irrelevant antigens. In particular, when the highly mutated heavy-chain gene of a cross-reactive mAb was reverted to the germline sequence, the PDC-E2 reactivity was reduced dramatically, whereas the xenobiotic reactivity was retained. Importantly, cross-reactive mAbs also recognized lipoic acid, a mitochondrial fatty acid that is covalently bound to PDC-E2. Conclusion: Our data reflect that chemically modified lipoic acid or lipoic acid itself, through molecular mimicry, is the initial target that leads to the development of primary biliary cholangitis. (Hepatology 2017;66:885–895).
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