Exogenous gangliosides at concentrations found in serum inhibit the concanavalin A- (Con A) induced mitogenic response of mouse thymocytes. Of four gangliosides tested, the trisialoganglioside, GT1, was the most potent inhibitor. Ceramides, cerebrosides, and sialic acid were not inhibitory at any concentration tested. The inhibition by gangliosides was not due to interference with Con A binding as shown by direct binding studies with [3H]acetyl-Con A nor was it due to a nonspecific killing effect. Thymocytes exposed to a ganglioside concentration 5 times that required to inhibit mitogenesis were still capable of excluding trypan blue up to 44 hr after ganglioside addition. Furthermore, ganglioside inhibition could be reversed by washing the cells 4 hr after addition of the glycolipid. A productive interaction with Con A occurs in the presence of ganglioside as shown by a Con A-induced increase in carbohydrate metabolism. However, uridine and thymidine incorporation are inhibited by the presence of ganglioside. Complete inhibition could be achieved if the glycolipid were added as late as 24 to 28 hr after the Con A in a 48-hr mitogenic assay. The results are discussed in light of recent findings that elevated levels of gangliosides are found in the sera of tumor-bearing animals, and it is suggested that gangliosides shed by tumor cells could be involved in the generalized immunosuppression observed in such animals.


Supported by USPHS Grant CA 21631 from the National Cancer Institute.

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