Objective: To investigate whether human T lymphotropic virus type I (HTLV-I) could be involved in the pathogenesis of Sjögren's syndrome (SS).
Methods: Labial salivary gland (LSG) biopsy specimens from 9 patients with SS (4 with primary SS and 5 with SS secondary to rheumatoid arthritis) and 9 controls were studied for the presence of the tax gene of HTLV-I using in situ hybridization, and for the presence of tax, gag, pol, and env genes of HTLV-I using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Testing for antibodies to HTLV-I and examination of lymphocytes on blood smears were performed to determine whether systemic viral infection was present.
Results: Using in situ hybridization and PCR, we detected the tax gene, but not the gag, pol, or env genes, of HTLV-I in LSG sections from 2 of 9 patients with SS and from none of the control subjects. Tax DNA was present mostly in nuclei of epithelial cells, but also in some lymphoid cells. Serum of the 2 affected patients did not contain antibodies to HTLV-I. In 1 patient, examination of blood smears revealed rare convoluted lymphocytes, sometimes with the appearance of "flower cells," as observed in the blood of HTLV-I-infected patients.
Conclusion: None of the known endogenous retroviral sequences is homologous to the tax gene. Thus, we suggest that HTLV-I (or another related retrovirus) can infect salivary epithelium. Transactivation properties of the tax protein could be implicated in the pathogenesis of SS. Alternatively, viral infection could cause de novo expression of HLA-DR antigens and favor the presentation of antigens by epithelial cells, leading, in some genetically predetermined subjects, to lymphoid infiltration of the gland.