Recent reports of microvascular injury in delayed hypersensitivity skin reactions prompted us to reexamine the pathogenesis of first-set skin allograft rejection in man using morphologic techniques that allowed both extensive vessel sampling and unequivocal evaluation of microvascular endothelium. We here report that widespread microvascular damage is a characteristic, early consequence of the cellular immune response to first-set human skin allografts and is qualitatively similar to, but substantially more extensive than, that occurring in delayed hypersensitivity reactions. Microvascular damage in invariably preceded significant epithelial necrosis and affected initially and primarily those venules, arterioles, and small veins enveloped by lymphocytes. Vessels of both the allograft itself and the underlying graft bed (recipient tissue) were equally affected. These data suggest that endothelial cells of the microvasculature are the critical target of the immune response in first-set vascularized skin allograft rejection in man and that rejection can be attributed largely to ischemic infarction resulting from extensive microvascular damage. Other mechanisms, such as direct cellular contacts between infiltrating lymphocytes and epithelium, apparently played only a minor role. The findings presented here indicate that the rejection of first-set vascularized skin allografts, though induced by immunologically specific mechanisms, is primarily effected by final pathways that are relatively nonspecific and that may cause damage to both foreign and host vessels and cells. Rather than contradicting studies demonstrating the exquisite specificity of allograft rejection in other systems, these findings provide a further example of the heterogeneity of the cellular immune response. Recognition of the critical role of immunologically mediated microvascular injury may prove important both for an understanding of the biology of allograft rejection and for strategies aimed at prolonging allograft survival.

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