Glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD) is the enzyme that synthesizes the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in neurons and in pancreatic beta cells. It is a major target of autoimmunity in Stiff-Man syndrome (SMS), a rare neurological disease, and in insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. The two GAD isoforms, GAD-65 and GAD-67, are the products of two different genes. GAD-67 and GAD-65 are very similar to each other in amino acid sequence and differ substantially only at their NH2-terminal region. We have investigated the reactivity of autoantibodies of 30 Stiff-Man syndrome patients to GAD. All patient sera contained antibodies that recognize strongly GAD-65, but also GAD-67, when tested by immunoprecipitation on brain extracts and by immunoprecipitation or immunocytochemistry on cells transfected with either the GAD-65 or the GAD-67 gene. When tested by Western blotting, all patient sera selectively recognized GAD-65. Western blot analysis of deletion mutants of GAD-65 demonstrated that autoantibodies are directed predominantly against two regions of the GAD-65 molecule. All SMS sera strongly recognized a fragment contained between amino acid 475 and the COOH terminus (amino acid 585). Within this region, amino acids 475-484 and 571-585 were required for reactivity. The requirement of these two discontinuous segments implies that the epitope is influenced by conformation. This reactivity is similar to that displayed by the monoclonal antibody GAD 6, suggesting the presence of a single immunodominant epitope (SMS-E1) in this region of GAD-65. In addition, most SMS sera recognized at least one epitope (SMS-E2) in the NH2-terminal domain of GAD-65 (amino acids 1-95). The demonstration in SMS patients of a strikingly homogeneous humoral autoimmune response against GAD and the identification of dominant autoreactive target regions may help to elucidate the molecular mechanisms of GAD processing and presentation involved in GAD autoimmunity. Moreover, the reactivity reported here of GAD autoantibodies in SMS partially differs from the reactivity of GAD autoantibodies in insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, suggesting a link between the pattern of humoral autoimmunity and the clinical condition.

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