Background: Epidemiologic studies have implicated the ingestion of cow's milk in the pathogenesis of insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM). Moreover, in a recent study, 100 percent of patients with new-onset IDDM had antibodies against bovine serum albumin (BSA), with a majority directed against a 17-amino-acid BSA peptide (ABBOS). Cellular immune mechanisms are thought to be the principal mediators of pancreatic beta-cell destruction in IDDM.
Methods: We measured the responses of peripheral-blood mononuclear cells to BSA and ABBOS or serum IgG anti-BSA antibodies (by particle-concentration fluorescence immunoassay) in 71 patients with IDDM, 55 subjects at various degrees of risk for IDDM, 36 patients with other autoimmune disorders (chronic autoimmune thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, and systemic lupus erythematosus), and 48 normal subjects.
Results: The responses of peripheral-blood mononuclear cells to BSA or ABBOS were positive in 2 of 24 patients with new-onset IDDM, 1 of 25 first-degree relatives of patients with IDDM who were negative for islet-cell antibodies, 2 of 30 first-degree relatives of patients with IDDM who were positive for islet-cell antibodies, 1 of 28 patients with established IDDM, and 1 of 29 normal subjects. Similarly, anti-BSA antibodies were not detected significantly more often in patients with new-onset IDDM (3 of 31, 10 percent) than in normal subjects (1 of 37, 3 percent; P = 0.32). However, many patients with autoimmune disease and subjects at increased risk for IDDM had anti-BSA antibodies (frequency, 10 to 31 percent).
Conclusions: Anti-BSA antibodies may reflect a general defect in the process of immunologic tolerance associated with a predisposition to autoimmunity rather than immunity specific to beta cells. The absence of cellular immunity to BSA and ABBOS in IDDM does not support a role for this antigen in the pathogenesis of the disorder.