Omenn syndrome is a severe primary immunodeficiency with putative autoimmune manifestations of the skin and gastrointestinal tract. The disease is caused by hypomorphic mutations in recombination-activating genes that impair but do not abolish the process of VDJ recombination, leading to the generation of autoreactive T cells with a highly restricted receptor repertoire. Loss of central tolerance in genetically determined autoimmune diseases, e.g., autoimmune polyendocrinopathy-candidiasis-ectodermal dystrophy, is associated with defective expression by medullary thymic epithelial cells of AIRE, the transcription activator that induces thymic expression of tissue-specific antigens. Analysis of AIRE expression in the thymi of 2 Omenn syndrome patients and 1 SCID patient, by real-time RT-PCR and immunohistochemistry, demonstrated a profound reduction in the levels of AIRE mRNA and protein in patients as compared with a normal control subject. Lack of AIRE was associated with normal or even increased levels of keratin and lymphotoxin-β receptor mRNAs, while mRNAs of the self-antigens insulin, cytochrome P450 1a2, and fatty acid-binding protein were undetectable in thymi from immunodeficiency patients. These results demonstrate that deficiency of AIRE expression is observed in severe immunodeficiencies characterized by abnormal T cell development and suggest that in Omenn syndrome, the few residual T cell clones that develop may escape negative selection and thereafter expand in the periphery, causing massive autoimmune reactions.
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