Human islet T cells are highly reactive to preproinsulin in type 1 diabetes

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Oct 12;118(41):e2107208118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2107208118.


Cytotoxic CD8 T lymphocytes play a central role in the tissue destruction of many autoimmune disorders. In type 1 diabetes (T1D), insulin and its precursor preproinsulin are major self-antigens targeted by T cells. We comprehensively examined preproinsulin specificity of CD8 T cells obtained from pancreatic islets of organ donors with and without T1D and identified epitopes throughout the entire preproinsulin protein and defective ribosomal products derived from preproinsulin messenger RNA. The frequency of preproinsulin-reactive T cells was significantly higher in T1D donors than nondiabetic donors and also differed by individual T1D donor, ranging from 3 to over 40%, with higher frequencies in T1D organ donors with HLA-A*02:01. Only T cells reactive to preproinsulin-related peptides isolated from T1D donors demonstrated potent autoreactivity. Reactivity to similar regions of preproinsulin was also observed in peripheral blood of a separate cohort of new-onset T1D patients. These findings have important implications for designing antigen-specific immunotherapies and identifying individuals that may benefit from such interventions.

Keywords: CD8 T cells; antigens; epitopes; insulin; type 1 diabetes.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Autoantigens / immunology
  • Autoimmunity / immunology
  • CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • Child
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / immunology*
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / pathology
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / therapy
  • Female
  • HLA-A2 Antigen
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy / methods
  • Insulin / immunology*
  • Islets of Langerhans / cytology
  • Islets of Langerhans / immunology*
  • Male
  • Protein Precursors / immunology*
  • Young Adult


  • Autoantigens
  • HLA-A*02:01 antigen
  • HLA-A2 Antigen
  • Insulin
  • Protein Precursors
  • preproinsulin