Upregulation of HLA class II in pancreatic beta cells from organ donors with type 1 diabetes

Diabetologia. 2022 Feb;65(2):387-401. doi: 10.1007/s00125-021-05619-9. Epub 2021 Dec 21.


Aims/hypothesis: We aimed to characterise and quantify the expression of HLA class II (HLA-II) in human pancreatic tissue sections and to analyse its induction in human islets.

Methods: We immunostained human pancreatic tissue sections from non-diabetic (n = 5), autoantibody positive (Aab+; n = 5), and type 1 diabetic (n = 5) donors, obtained from the Network of Pancreatic Organ Donors (nPOD), with HLA-II, CD68 and insulin. Each tissue section was acquired with a widefield slide scanner and then analysed with QuPath software. In total, we analysed 7415 islets that contained 338,480 cells. Widefield microscopy was further complemented by high resolution imaging of 301 randomly selected islets, acquired using a Zeiss laser scanning confocal (LSM880) to confirm our findings. Selected beta cells were acquired in enhanced resolution using LSM880 with an Airyscan detector. Further, we cultured healthy isolated human islets and reaggregated human islet microtissues with varying concentrations of proinflammatory cytokines (IFN-γ, TNF-α and IL-1β). After proinflammatory cytokine culture, islet function was measured by glucose-stimulated insulin secretion, and HLA-I and HLA-II expression was subsequently evaluated with immunostaining or RNA sequencing.

Results: Insulin-containing islets (ICIs) of donors with type 1 diabetes had a higher percentage of HLA-II positive area (24.31%) compared with type 1 diabetic insulin-deficient islets (IDIs, 0.67%), non-diabetic (3.80%), and Aab+ (2.31%) donors. In ICIs of type 1 diabetic donors, 45.89% of the total insulin signal co-localised with HLA-II, and 27.65% of the islet beta cells expressed both HLA-II and insulin, while in non-diabetic and Aab+ donors 0.96% and 0.59% of the islet beta cells, respectively, expressed both markers. In the beta cells of donors with type 1 diabetes, HLA-II was mostly present in the cell cytoplasm, co-localising with insulin. In the experiments with human isolated islets and reaggregated human islets, we observed changes in insulin secretion upon stimulation with proinflammatory cytokines, as well as higher expression of HLA-II and HLA-I when compared with controls cultured with media, and an upregulation of HLA-I and HLA-II RNA transcripts.

Conclusions/interpretation: After a long-standing controversy, we provide definitive evidence that HLA-II can be expressed by pancreatic beta cells from patients with type 1 diabetes. Furthermore, this upregulation can be induced in vitro in healthy isolated human islets or reaggregated human islets by treatment with proinflammatory cytokines. Our findings support a role for HLA-II in type 1 diabetes pathogenesis since HLA-II expressing beta cells can potentially become a direct target of autoreactive CD4+ lymphocytes.

Keywords: Beta cells; HLA class I; HLA class II; IIDP; InSphero microtissues; Islets; Pancreas; QuPath; Type 1 diabetes; nPOD.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Autoantibodies / blood
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Child
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Glucose / pharmacology
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class II / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Insulin / metabolism
  • Insulin Secretion
  • Insulin-Secreting Cells / drug effects
  • Insulin-Secreting Cells / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Tissue Donors
  • Up-Regulation
  • Young Adult


  • Autoantibodies
  • Histocompatibility Antigens Class II
  • Insulin
  • Glucose