A novel ‘multistep molecular mimicry’ mechanism for induction of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) by bacterial antigens that activate T lymphocytes previously ‘educated’ by peptides derived from a class of human histocompatibility antigens is reported here. These antigens have the amino acid sequence QKRAA, which is also present on the Escherichia coli heat-shock protein dnaj. Synovial fluid cells of early RA patients have strong immune responses to the bacterial antigen, but cells from normal subjects or controls with other autoimmune diseases do not. The activated T cells may cross-react with autologous dnaj heat-shock proteins that are expressed at synovial sites of inflammation. Our findings may have direct relevance to new strategies for the immune therapy of RA.
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