MHC molecules in health and disease: At the cusp of a paradigm shift

Self Nonself. 2011 Jan;2(1):43-48. doi: 10.4161/self.2.1.15757. Epub 2011 Jan 1.


Half a century after the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) was discovered, its functional roles in health and disease remain poorly understood. Many hallmarks of the MHC, including its unusual evolution, structurefunction properties of its gene products and allele-specific associations with dozens of diseases and health traits cannot be convincingly explained by the tenets of existing paradigms. It is therefore becoming increasingly apparent that in order to better understand MHC-health/disease association-a phenomenon that impacts the health of millions-heterodox ideas are critically needed. Here we propose a testable, novel theory concerning the functional role of MHC molecules in health and disease. At the focus of this theory is an evolutionarily-conserved, tri-dimensional cusp-like prominence ('kink'), found in the midst of one of the two α helices that form the perimeter of the groove of all MHC molecules. Based on structural, functional and evolutionary considerations, as well as our recent experimental data, it is proposed here that the MHC cusp region is enriched in allele-specific signal transduction ligands that interact with non-MHC cell surface receptors and trigger signaling events. Aberrations in these pathways could lead to disease development, or affect the severity of such diseases.