Autoimmune thyroid disease: further developments in our understanding

Endocr Rev. 1994 Dec;15(6):788-830. doi: 10.1210/edrv-15-6-788.


The revolution in molecular techniques has allowed dissection of the autoimmune response in a way impossible to imagine 10 yr ago. There have been spectacular advances in our understanding of self-tolerance mechanisms and how these may fail, combined with a detailed comprehension of antigen presentation, functional T cell subsets, and TCR utilization in autoimmunity, albeit usually in animal models that resemble, but do not exactly duplicate, human diseases. More gradually, these findings are being translated to thyroid autoimmunity, where the major achievement of the last decade has been the molecular characterization of the three main thyroid autoantigens. This in turn has allowed epitope identification, although again the only clear data so far have come from animal models of EAT. Another advance has been the recognition that the thyrocyte is not a helpless target of autoaggression, being capable of expressing a wide array of immunologically active molecules, which may exacerbate or diminish the autoimmune response. In 1983, there was considerable excitement at the discovery of the first of these phenomena, namely MHC class II expression, but its possible role in autoantigen presentation remains to be defined. By analogy with pancreatic beta-cells, and based on our own data, we believe that class II-expressing thyrocytes have little, if any, such role and suspect that instead this may be a mechanism for inducing peripheral tolerance. Defining the contribution of thyrocytes to the intrathyroidal autoimmune response, whether from released cytokines or surface-bound molecules, will be crucial to our future understanding, as well as holding the promise that these thyroid-derived products might be therapeutic targets. Despite molecular developments in HLA analysis, there have been no really major improvements in our understanding of the immunogenetics of thyroid autoimmunity, equivalent to those made in type 1 diabetes mellitus. The available data suggest strongly that non-MHC genes play an important role in susceptibility, and novel approaches will be required to identify these. On the other hand, we know more about the importance of environmental and endogenous (most probably hormonal) factors in thyroid autoimmunity. Understanding the basic immunological changes in the postpartum period is still poor, however, as most studies to date have concentrated on epidemiology and clinical delineation. As PPTD undergoes spontaneous remission, elucidation of these mechanisms has clear implications for treatment.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Thyroiditis, Autoimmune* / complications
  • Thyroiditis, Autoimmune* / epidemiology
  • Thyroiditis, Autoimmune* / immunology