The production of potentially pathogenic anti-DNA autoantibodies in SLE is driven by special, autoimmune T helper (Th) cells. Herein, we sequenced the T cell receptor (TCR) α and β chain genes expressed by 42 autoimmune Th lines from lupus patients that were mostly CD4+ and represented the strongest inducers of such autoantibodies. These autoimmune TCRs displayed a recurrent motif of highly charged residues in their CDR3 loops that were contributed by N-nucleotide additions and also positioned there by the recombination process. Furthermore, Th lines from four of the five patients showed a marked increase in the usage of the Vα8 gene family. Several independent Th lines expressed identical TCR α and/or β chain sequences indicating again antigenic selection. 10 of these Th lines could be tested further for antigenic specificity. 4 of the 10 pathogenic anti-DNA autoantibody-inducing Th lines responded to the non-histone chromosomal protein HMG and two responded to nucleosomal histone proteins; all presented by HLA-DR molecules. Another Th line responded to purified DNA more than nucleosomes. Thus, these autoimmune Th cells of lupus patients respond to charged epitopes in various DNA-binding nucleoproteins that are probably processed and presented by the anti-DNA B cells they selectively help.
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