The long-term success of heart transplantation for end-stage heart disease has been hindered by the problems associated with acute and chronic graft rejection, opportunistic infections and potentially fatal complications of intensive immunosuppression. A more complete understanding of the biology of transplant rejection should provide the basis for the development of improved methods for controlling and monitoring rejection. Cytokines, the soluble factors which regulate the immune response, are central to the rejection process. The objective of this study was to analyse cytokine mRNA transcripts in 99 biopsy samples and 89 blood samples from 65 and 35 Stanford Medical Center cardiac transplant recipients, respectively, gathered between January 1990 and January 1992. Following RNA extraction and conversion to cDNA, samples were amplified with cytokine-specific primers for interleukins (IL) 1 to 8, TNF-beta (tumour necrosis factor-beta) and IFN-gamma (interferon-gamma) and were analysed by gel electrophoresis and Southern blot hybridization. Our results demonstrate that despite chronic immunosuppressive therapy, the peripheral blood of transplant recipients expressed a higher combined percentage of different cytokine transcripts than did peripheral blood obtained from normal volunteers. In transplant patients, detection of cytokine transcripts for IL-1 alpha, IL-1 beta and IL-2 increased with time after transplantation. Intragraft IL-7 gene expression was significantly increased in biopsies diagnosed with mild (grade 1) rejection when compared to those with no evidence of rejection or with moderate to severe rejection. Implications of these results in light of possible mechanisms of rejection and of new approaches to immunotherapy are discussed.
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