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Tolerance checkpoint bypass permits emergence of pathogenic T cells to neuromyelitis optica autoantigen aquaporin-4

Sagan, SA;Winger, RC;Cruz-Herranz, A;Nelson, PA;Hagberg, S;Miller, CN;Spencer, CM;Ho, PP;Bennett, JL;Levy, M;Levin, MH;Verkman, AS;Steinman, L;Green, AJ;Anderson, MS;Sobel, RA;Zamvil, SS;

Aquaporin-4 (AQP4)-specific T cells are expanded in neuromyelitis optica (NMO) patients and exhibit Th17 polarization. However, their pathogenic role in CNS autoimmune inflammatory disease is unclear. Although multiple AQP4 T-cell epitopes have been identified in WT C57BL/6 mice, we observed that neither immunization with those determinants nor transfer of donor T cells targeting them caused CNS autoimmune disease in recipient mice. In contrast, robust proliferation was observed following immunization of AQP4-deficient (AQP4(-/-)) mice with AQP4 peptide (p) 135-153 or p201-220, peptides predicted to contain I-A(b)-restricted T-cell epitopes but not identified in WT mice. In comparison with WT mice, AQP4(-/-) mice used unique T-cell receptor repertoires for recognition of these two AQP4 epitopes. Donor T cells specific for either determinant from AQP4(-/-), but not WT, mice induced paralysis in recipient WT and B-cell-deficient mice. AQP4-specific Th17-polarized cells induced more severe disease than Th1-polarized cells. Clinical signs were associated with opticospinal infiltrates of T cells and monocytes. Fluorescent-labeled donor T cells were detected in CNS lesions. Visual system involvement was evident by changes in optical coherence tomography. Fine mapping of AQP4 p201-220 and p135-153 epitopes identified peptides within p201-220 but not p135-153, which induced clinical disease in 40% of WT mice by direct immunization. Our results provide a foundation to evaluate how AQP4-specific T cells contribute to AQP4-targeted CNS autoimmunity (ATCA) and suggest that pathogenic AQP4-specific T-cell responses are normally restrained by central tolerance, which may be relevant to understanding development of AQP4-reactive T cells in NMO.