Objective: To investigate if recurrent autoimmunity explained hyperglycemia and C-peptide loss in three immunosuppressed simultaneous pancreas-kidney (SPK) transplant recipients.
Research design and methods: We monitored autoantibodies and autoreactive T-cells (using tetramers) and performed biopsy. The function of autoreactive T-cells was studied with in vitro and in vivo assays.
Results: Autoantibodies were present pretransplant and persisted on follow-up in one patient. They appeared years after transplantation but before the development of hyperglycemia in the remaining patients. Pancreas transplant biopsies were taken within approximately 1 year from hyperglycemia recurrence and revealed beta-cell loss and insulitis. We studied autoreactive T-cells from the time of biopsy and repeatedly demonstrated their presence on further follow-up, together with autoantibodies. Treatment with T-cell-directed therapies (thymoglobulin and daclizumab, all patients), alone or with the addition of B-cell-directed therapy (rituximab, two patients), nonspecifically depleted T-cells and was associated with C-peptide secretion for >1 year. Autoreactive T-cells with the same autoantigen specificity and conserved T-cell receptor later reappeared with further C-peptide loss over the next 2 years. Purified autoreactive CD4 T-cells from two patients were cotransplanted with HLA-mismatched human islets into immunodeficient mice. Grafts showed beta-cell loss in mice receiving autoreactive T-cells but not control T-cells.
Conclusions: We demonstrate the cardinal features of recurrent autoimmunity in three such patients, including the reappearance of CD4 T-cells capable of mediating beta-cell destruction. Markers of autoimmunity can help diagnose this underappreciated cause of graft loss. Immune monitoring during therapy showed that autoimmunity was not resolved by the immunosuppressive agents used.