Insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus as an autoimmune disease

Endocr Rev. 1994 Aug;15(4):516-42. doi: 10.1210/edrv-15-4-516.


IDDM is unquestionably an autoimmune disease, as reflected by the presence of beta-cell-reactive autoantibodies and T cells, T cell-mediated transfer of the disease in nondiabetic mice, rats, and humans, and disease sensitivity to immunosuppressive therapy. T cells are predominantly, if not exclusively, involved in creating the islet lesions that lead to beta-cell atrophy after a stage of reversible inflammation. A full understanding of the disease pathogenesis will require a better definition of the nature of the triggering and target autoantigen(s) and of the effector mechanisms (cytokines, cytotoxic cells?). Much less information is available on the etiology than on the pathogenesis. Genetic factors are mandatory and the involvement of predisposition genes (HLA and non-HLA) is now being unravelled. The modulatory role of environmental factors is demonstrated by the high disease discordance rate in identical twins and by experimental data showing positive and negative modulation of the disease by a number of agents, notably infectious agents and food constituents. It is not clear, however, whether a given environmental factor, e.g. a precise virus or a cow's milk component, plays a real etiological role in a selected genetic background. IDDM thus appears as a multifactorial disease. It is not known, however, whether all factors intervene concomitantly in a given individual or separately in subsets of patients, explaining the clinical heterogeneity of the disease. The mechanisms underlying the loss of tolerance to self beta-cell autoantigen(s) are still unknown. Defective intrathymic negative selection of autoantigen-specific autoreactive T cell clones is unlikely. Breakdown of T cell anergy could occur according to various mechanisms, including aberrant expression of MHC molecules and molecular mimicry. Defective suppressor T cell function, perhaps related to TH1/TH2 imbalance, probably intervenes by amplifying the anti-beta-cell autoimmune response whatever its triggering mechanism. Before putative etiological agents are identified, one must base immunotherapy on nonantigen-specific agents. Results recently obtained in NOD mice indicate that the goal of nontoxic long-lasting immune protection from the disease is feasible if treatment is started early enough. In some cases (anti-T cell monoclonal antibodies), it appears that specific unresponsiveness can be induced. This double strategy (early intervention, tolerance induction) is the main challenge for immunodiabetologists.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autoantigens / immunology*
  • Autoimmune Diseases / genetics
  • Autoimmune Diseases / immunology*
  • Autoimmune Diseases / virology
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Experimental / genetics
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Experimental / immunology
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Experimental / virology
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / genetics
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / immunology*
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / virology
  • Humans
  • Islets of Langerhans / immunology*
  • Self Tolerance


  • Autoantigens