While the pathologic mechanisms responsible for organ-specific tissue damage in primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) remain an enigma, it has been suggested that the pathology is mediated by autoreactive T cells infiltrating the intrahepatic bile ducts. Previously, we have documented that there is 100-fold enrichment in the frequency of CD4+ autoreactive T cells in the liver that are specific for peptides encoded by the E2 components of the pyruvate dehydrogenase complexes (PDC-E2). We have also recently characterized the first MHC class I-restricted epitope for PDC-E2, namely amino acid 159-167, a region very similar to the epitope recognized by MHC class II-restricted CD4+ cells and by autoantibodies. The effector functions of these PDC-E2159-167-specific CD8+ cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) are not well understood. We have taken advantage of tetramer technology and report herein that there is tenfold increase in the frequency of PDC-E2159-167-specific CTLs in the liver as compared with the blood in PBC. In addition, the precursor frequency of the CTLs in blood was significantly higher in early-stage PBC. Of interest was the fact that, upon stimulation with the peptide, the response of PDC-E2159-167 tetramer-positive cells is heterogeneous with respect to IFN-γ synthesis. These data, we believe for the first time, document the enrichment of autoantigen-specific CD8+ T cells in the PBC liver, suggesting that CD8+ T cells play a significant role in the immunopathogenesis of PBC.
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