Nitric oxide (NO) is a well-known mediator of autoimmune processes. In the thyroid gland, it is produced in response to interleukin 1 (IL-1) and may mediate cytokine action at an early stage of autoimmune thyroiditis. In this study, we have investigated whether NO is involved in cytokine-induced cytotoxic effects and epithelial barrier alterations in thyrocytes. Human thyroid epithelial cells were cultured as tight polarised monolayers on a permeable support and exposed or not to IL-1alpha (100 U/ml), alone or in combination with interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma; 100 U/ml) added to the basal compartment. NO production was not detected in control thyrocytes, but was significantly induced by the combination of IL-1alpha with IFN-gamma, in a time-dependent fashion. Similarly, expression of the inducible isoform of nitric oxide synthase (NOSII), determined by immunoblot and immunofluorescence confocal microscopy, was not detected in control cells, but was markedly induced after 48-h exposure to both cytokines. This treatment significantly increased the release of cytosolic lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) in the apical and basolateral media and decreased transepithelial electrical resistance. Although IFN-gamma was not sufficient to induce NO production, it could by itself decrease transepithelial resistance and synergised the IL-1alpha effect on LDH release. The NOS inhibitor, L-nitro-arginine-methyl ester, suppressed the cytokine-induced NO production and decreased the LDH release, but failed to prevent the loss of transepithelial resistance. These results indicated that human thyrocytes express NOSII and produce NO in response to IL-1alpha+IFN-gamma and suggest that NO acts as a mediator of cytokine-induced cytotoxicity in the thyroid gland and may promote the exposure of autoantigens to the immune system. In contrast, NO does not appear to mediate the cytokine-induced disruption of the thyroid epithelial barrier.
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