Us, A. Durdal
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Superantigens (SAgs) are microbial proteins produced by various microorganisms that elicit excessive and strong stimulation of T cells via an unconventional mechanism. They cause polyclonal activation of T cells in a non-specific manner, by binding to a particular variable-beta (V beta) chain of T-cell receptor (TCR) and MHC class II molecule, in unprocessed form and outside of peptide-binding cleft, forming a bridge between the antigen presenting cell and the T cell. SAgs are classified into three groups, namely 1) exogenous (soluble proteins and exotoxins secreted by microorganisms), 2) endogenous (transmembrane proteins encoded by viruses which are integrated into the genome) and 3) B-cell SAgs (proteins which stimulate predominantly B cells). The best characterized and mostly studied SAgs are staphylococcal and streptococcal exotoxins, however it is well-known that many other microorganisms also possess SAg activities. Despite the presence of several viruses that cause severe infections in humans, the number of viruses that have proteins identified with SAg property in their pathogenesis, is relatively low. To date, the defined viruses that encoded SAgs are as follows; mouse mammary tumor virus (MMTV) (Marrack, et al. 1991), rabies virus (Lafon, et al. 1992), Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) (Sutkowski, et al. 1996), human endogenous retrovirus (HERV) (Conrad, et al. 1997), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) (Posnett, et al. 1995; Torres, et al. 1996; Townsley-Fuchs, et al. 1997) and Ebola virus (Leroy, et al. 2011). SAgs were first described in the MMTV, a polymorphic B-type retrovirus that is either contained in the genome as an endogenous provirus (germline transmission) or exogenous infectious virus that transmits vertically via breast milk. Both MMTV forms encode SAgs. The SAg-mediated massive T cell activation is required for the spread of exogenous MMTV from intestines to mammary glands, facilitating the transmission of infectious virus. On the other hand, expression of endogenous SAgs leads to thymic deletion of responding T cells (bearing V beta 6-9(+) TCR) due to self-tolerance induction during the fetal life, and protects the host against future exogenous MMTV infections. The SAg of rabies virus is the N protein found in nucleocapsid structure and stimulates V beta 8(+) TCR-bearing T cells. The SAg-induced polyclonal activation of T cells leads to turn-off the specific immune response, to enhance the immunopathogenesis and facilitates viral transmission from the initial site of infection (the muscle tissue) to the nerve endings. In case of EBV-associated SAg that activates V beta 13(+) TCR-bearing T cells, it was detected that the SAg activity was not encoded by EBV itself, but instead was due to the transactivation of HERV-K18 by EBV latent membrane proteins, whose env gene encodes the SAg (Sutkowski, et al. 2001). It has been denoted that EBV-induced SAg expression plays a role in the long-term persistence and latency of virus in memory B cells, in the development of autoimmune diseases and in the oncogenesis mechanisms. The proteins which are identified as SAgs of HIV are Nef and gp120. It is believed that, the massive activation of CD4(+) T cells (selectively with V beta-12(+), V beta-5.3(+) and V beta-18(+) TCRs) in early stages of infection and clonal deletion, anergy and apoptosis of bystander T cells in the late stages may be due to SAg property of Nef protein, as well as the other mechanisms. However there are some studies indicating that Nef does not act as a SAg (Lapatschek, et al. 2001). HIV gp120 glycoprotein is a B-cell SAg that binds to VH3-expressing B cell receptors and causes polyclonal B cell activation. In addition, binding of gp120 to IgE on the surface of basophiles and mast cells causes activation of those cells, secretion of high level proinflammatory mediators leading to allergic reactions and tissue damage. In a recent study, the depletion (anergy or deletion) of T cell populations bearing V beta 12(+), V beta 13(+) and V beta 17(+) TCR have been shown, in patients infected with Zaire Ebola virus, whatever the clinical outcome (death or recovery), these results also suggest the presence of SAg activity. In this review article, following a brief description of the general characteristics of SAgs, virus-encoded SAgs and their roles in the diseases have been discussed.