Islet cell hyperexpression of HLA class I antigens: a defining feature in type 1 diabetes

Diabetologia. 2016 Nov;59(11):2448-2458. doi: 10.1007/s00125-016-4067-4. Epub 2016 Aug 9.


Aims/hypothesis: Human pancreatic beta cells may be complicit in their own demise in type 1 diabetes, but how this occurs remains unclear. One potentially contributing factor is hyperexpression of HLA class I antigens. This was first described approximately 30 years ago, but has never been fully characterised and was recently challenged as artefactual. Therefore, we investigated HLA class I expression at the protein and RNA levels in pancreases from three cohorts of patients with type 1 diabetes. The principal aims were to consider whether HLA class I hyperexpression is artefactual and, if not, to determine the factors driving it.

Methods: Pancreas samples from type 1 diabetes patients with residual insulin-containing islets (n = 26) from the Network for Pancreatic Organ donors with Diabetes (nPOD), Diabetes Virus Detection study (DiViD) and UK recent-onset type 1 diabetes collections were immunostained for HLA class I isoforms, signal transducer and activator of transcription 1 (STAT1), NLR family CARD domain containing 5 (NLRC5) and islet hormones. RNA was extracted from islets isolated by laser-capture microdissection from nPOD and DiViD samples and analysed using gene-expression arrays.

Results: Hyperexpression of HLA class I was observed in the insulin-containing islets of type 1 diabetes patients from all three tissue collections, and was confirmed at both the RNA and protein levels. The expression of β2-microglobulin (a second component required for the generation of functional HLA class I complexes) was also elevated. Both 'classical' HLA class I isoforms (i.e. HLA-ABC) as well as a 'non-classical' HLA molecule, HLA-F, were hyperexpressed in insulin-containing islets. This hyperexpression did not correlate with detectable upregulation of the transcriptional regulator NLRC5. However, it was strongly associated with increased STAT1 expression in all three cohorts. Islet hyperexpression of HLA class I molecules occurred in the insulin-containing islets of patients with recent-onset type 1 diabetes and was also detectable in many patients with disease duration of up to 11 years, declining thereafter.

Conclusions/interpretation: Islet cell HLA class I hyperexpression is not an artefact, but is a hallmark in the immunopathogenesis of type 1 diabetes. The response is closely associated with elevated expression of STAT1 and, together, these occur uniquely in patients with type 1 diabetes, thereby contributing to their selective susceptibility to autoimmune-mediated destruction.

Keywords: DiViD; HLA class I; HLA-F; Islet cell; Pancreas; STAT1; Type 1 diabetes; nPOD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / metabolism*
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / pathology
  • Female
  • Fluorescent Antibody Technique
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class I / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Insulin / metabolism
  • Islets of Langerhans / metabolism*
  • Islets of Langerhans / pathology
  • Male
  • Pancreas / metabolism
  • STAT1 Transcription Factor / metabolism


  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class I
  • Insulin
  • STAT1 Transcription Factor