Background. Clinical intestinal transplantation has been plagued by frequent and severe graft rejection. It has been proposed that the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) antigens might play a critical role in this process owing to their extensive expression on enterocytes and mucosa- associated immune cells. Methods. The present study examined the role of MHC antigens in intestinal graft rejection using MHC class I-deficient and MHC class II-deficient donors. Results. Grafts with normal MHC expression were rejected by 9 days, whereas survival was prolonged to 14 days in the MHC class II-deficient grafts (P=NS) and to 20 days in the MHC I-deficient grafts (P<0.002). In all groups, early rejection was characterized by (1) increased crypt cell apoptosis, as detected by the terminal deoxynucleotidyltransferase-mediated dUTP-biotin nick end labeling (TUNEL) technique of in situ labeling; and (2) the increased expression of perforin and a CD8 phenotype in the graft-infiltrating cells. Conclusions. These data suggest that MHC antigens, CD8-positive T cells, and perforin-expressing cells contribute to intestinal graft rejection. Apoptosis of the progenitor epithelial crypt cells during early intestinal rejection may impair the gut's ability to regenerate and repair mucosal damage.
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