Superantigens and their potential role in human disease

Adv Immunol. 1993;54:99-166. doi: 10.1016/s0065-2776(08)60534-9.


In the past few years, there has been a virtual explosion of information on the viral and bacterial molecules now known as superantigens. Some structures have been defined and the mechanism by which they interact with MHC class II and the V beta region of the T cell receptor is being clarified. Data are accumulating regarding the importance of virally encoded superantigens in infectivity, viral replication, and the life cycle of the virus. In the case of MMTV, evidence also suggests that superantigens encoded by a provirus may be maintained by the host to protect against future exogenous MMTV infection. Experiments in animals have also begun to elucidate the dramatic and variable effects of superantigens on responding T cells and other immune processes. Finally, the role of superantigens in certain human diseases such as toxic shock syndrome, some autoimmune diseases like Kawasaki syndrome, and perhaps some immunodeficiency disease such as that secondary to HIV infection is being addressed and mechanisms are being defined. Still, numerous important questions remain. For example, it is not clear how superantigens with such different structures, for example, SEB, TSST-1, and MMTV vSAG, can interact with MHC and a similar region of the TCR in such basically similar ways. It remains to be determined whether there are human equivalents of the endogenous murine MMTV superantigens. The functional role of bacterial superantigens also remains to be explained. Serious infection and serious consequences from toxin-producing bacteria are relatively rare events, and it is questionable whether such events are involved in the selection pressure to maintain production of a functional superantigen. Hypotheses to explain these molecules, which can differ greatly in structure, include T cell stimulation-mediated suppression of host responses or enhancement of environments for bacterial growth and replication, but substantiating data for these ideas are mostly absent. It also seems likely that only the tip of the iceberg has been uncovered in terms of the role of superantigens in human disease. Unlike toxic shock syndrome, other associations, especially with viral superantigens, may be quite subtle and defined only after considerable effort. The definition of these molecules and mechanisms of disease may result in new therapeutic strategies. Finally, it is apparent that superantigens have dramatic effects on the immune system. One wonders whether these molecules or modifications of them can be used as specific modulators of the immune system to treat disease.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Antigens, Bacterial / immunology*
  • Antigens, Viral / immunology*
  • Disease / etiology
  • Humans
  • Mammary Tumor Virus, Mouse / immunology*
  • Minor Lymphocyte Stimulatory Antigens / physiology
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell / immunology
  • Structure-Activity Relationship
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology


  • Antigens, Bacterial
  • Antigens, Viral
  • Minor Lymphocyte Stimulatory Antigens
  • Receptors, Antigen, T-Cell