Anatomy of the antigenic structure of a large memberane autoantigen, the muscle-type nicotinic acetylcholine receptor


  • Acknowledgements
    Work in the authors' laboratories was supported in part by grants from AFM and the BIOMED (BMHI-CT93–1100) and HCM (CHRXCT94–0547) programs of the Commission of the European Communities.

Socrates J. Tzartos, Department of Biochemistry Hellenic Pasteur Institute 127 Vas. Sofias Ave. Athens I1521 Greece Fax: 30 1 6457831 or 30 I 6423498 e-mail:


Summary: The neuromuscular junction nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (AChR), a pentameric membrane glycoprotein, is the autoantigen involved in the autoimmune disease myasthenia gravis (MG). In animals immunized with intact AChR and in human MG, the anti-AChR antibody response is polyclonal. However, a small extracellular region of the AChR a-subunit, the main immunogenic region (MIR), seems to be a major target for anti-AChR antibodies. A major loop containing overlapping epitopes for several anti-MIR monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) lies within residues α67–76 at the extreme synaptic end of each a-subunit; however, anti-MIR mAbs are functionally and structurally quite heterogeneous. Anti-MIR mAbs do not affect channel gating, but are very effective in the passive transfer of MG to animals; in contrast, their Fab or Fv fragments protect the AChR from the pathogenic effects of the intact antibodies. Antibodies against the cytoplas-mic region of the AChR can be elicited by immunization with denatured AChR and the precise epitopes of many such mAbs have been identified; however, it is unlikely that such antibodies are present in significant amounts in human MG. Antibodies to other extracellular epitopes on all AChR subunits are present in both experimental and human MG; these include antibodies to the acetylcholine-binding site which affect AChR function in various ways and also induce acute experimental MG. Finally, anti-AChR antibodies cross-reactive with noti-AChR antigens exist, suggesting that MG may result from molecular mimicry. Despite extensive studies, many gaps remain in our understanding of the antigenic structure of the AChR, especially in relation to human MG. A thorough understanding of the antigenic structure of the AChR is required for an in-depth understanding, and for possible specific immunotherapy, of MG.