Recent evidence suggests that the expression of abnormally high amounts of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules may be a feature of at least some kinds of transformed cells. To investigate this aspect of neoplastic transformation we studied the expression of MHC class I antigens in an experimental model of normal, tumor-derived, and virus-transformed thyroid epithelial cell lines. The expression of MHC class I antigens has been studied by means of several monoclonal antibodies directed against either monomorphic or polymorphic epitopes and quantified by flow cytometry. Class I specific mRNA transcripts have been also analyzed by Northern blot hybridization, using a mouse genomic H-2 DNA probe. Our results indicate a modulation of MHC class I expression associated with loss of the differentiated phenotype and with transformation of thyroid epithelial cell lines. Undifferentiated cells in fact show a small quantity of these antigens, because acquisition of a fully differentiated phenotype is associated with an increase in their expression. Cell lines derived from thyroid tumors show reduced expression of MHC class I antigens, as compared to differentiated cells. Conversely, cells transformed in vitro by a retrovirus carrying the v-raski oncogene exhibit an increase in these antigens in comparison to their normal differentiated counterparts. Cells infected with a mutant virus able to transform cells only at the permissive temperature of 33°C show a similar increased expression. After a shift to the nonpermissive temperature of 39°C, infected cells, even those losing the transformed phenotype retain the same increased amount of MHC class I antigens. Our data suggest that the modulation of MHC class I antigen expression is strongly associated with transformation in thyroid epithelial cells.

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Supported in part by CNR Grants (Progetti Finalizzati “Oncologia” and “Ingegneria Genetica e Basi Molecolari delle Malattie Ereditarie”) and by a Grant from the Associazione Italiana per la Ricerca sul Cancro.

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