To define which mycobacterial antigens were responsible for the activation of synovial fluid T lymphocytes, acetone-precipitated Mycobacterium tuberculosis (AP-MT) antigens were separated into five fractions following polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis and added to the mononuclear cell cultures of patients with inflammatory synovitis. Fractions 2 (50 to 70 kDa) and 5 (< 28 kDa) resulted in significantly more proliferation than that of fractions 1, 3, and 4. The response to a purified mycobacterial 65-kDa heat shock protein (hsp), which migrated in fraction 2, was highly correlated (r = 0.89, P < 0.001) with the response to the crude AP-MT. The proliferative response to a different hsp, the Escherichia coli DnaK, by synovial fluid lymphocytes was marginal. Analysis of the synovial fluid T cell response to mycobacterial culture filtrates by T cell Western blotting revealed dominant responses to antigen(s) in the range of 31 to 21 kDa in each responding patient, although no other consistent pattern of T cell activation was noted. Three lines of evidence suggested that the response to the low molecular weight fractions was directed against degradation fragments of the 65-kDa protein. These observations suggest that the activation of T lymphocytes obtained from inflammatory synovial fluids by crude mycobacterial antigens was due in large part to recognition of the 65-kDa mycobacterial hsp.
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