Background: Immunocytochemical analysis of human organs in situ reveals differential expression of MHC class II antigens by microvascular endothelial cells (MVEC) and endothelial cells (EC) from large vessels. In view of the role of EC as initiators of allograft rejection, it is of interest to understand the regulation of MHC class II regulation by human MVEC. We have previously isolated, cultured, and characterized MVEC from the human heart, showing that although these cells were initially MHC class II positive, the antigens were lost after about 14 days in culture. These results suggest that basal expression in vivo is maintained by circulating factors.
Methods: Here we have compared the sensitivity of human heart MVEC, human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVEC), and adult large vessel EC (aorta, coronary artery, and pulmonary artery) to interferon (IFN)-gamma and natural killer (NK) cell-mediated induction of MHC class II antigens. MVEC and HUVEC were cultured with 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 U/ml of IFN-gamma for 4 days, the cells were washed, and flow cytometry was used to examine HLA-DR expression at days 1, 2, 4, 7, 10, 14, and 21. EC were also cultured with purified NK cells in the presence and absence of neutralizing antibodies to IFN-gamma, and MHC class II expression was analyzed.
Results: As little as 5 U/ml of IFN-gamma produced 98% positive cells in heart MVEC compared with 100-500 U/ml needed for the same effect in HUVEC or other large vessel EC (coronary, aorta, pulmonary). Class II expression was maintained longer by MVEC (for 17 days) compared with HUVEC (for 10 days). NK cells and supernatant from MVEC/NK cultures induced MHC class II antigens on MVEC and HUVEC in a dose-dependent fashion; the MVEC showed an enhanced sensitivity compared with the HUVEC. The NK effects were inhibited by neutralizing antibodies to IFN-gamma. The allostimulatory ability of MHC class II-positive EC was shown to be proportional to the amount of MHC class II on the cell surface.
Conclusions: The results suggest that basal expression of MHC class II on human MVEC is maintained by circulating IFN-gamma and NK cells. This conclusion has implications for therapeutic interventions.