Your browser has javascript turned off or blocked. This will lead to some parts of our website to not work properly or at all. Turn on javascript for best performance.

The browser you are using is not supported by this website. All versions of Internet Explorer are no longer supported, either by us or Microsoft (read more here:

Please use a modern browser to fully experience our website, such as the newest versions of Edge, Chrome, Firefox or Safari etc.

Default user image.

Åke Lernmark

Principal investigator

Default user image.

Animal models of endocrine/organ-specific autoimmune diseases: do they really help us to understand human autoimmunity?


  • WK Lam-Tse
  • Åke Lernmark
  • HA Drexhage

Summary, in English

Organ-specific or endocrine autoimmune diseases are complex, polygenic afflictions the penetrance of which is heavily dependent on various environmental influences. Important target tissues are the thyroid, the islets of Langerhans, gastric parietal cells and steroid-producing cells in the adrenal and ovary. The etiology of these diseases remains to be clarified. The pathogenesis is strongly associated with autoimmune phenomena. None of the current treatment approaches provides a cure; rather they represent replacement therapy. An important objective in the treatment of endocrine/organ-specific autoimmune diseases is the detection of individuals at risk for the development of such diseases and the development of interventions to prevent an outbreak of the diseases. This requires an exquisite knowledge of the early etio-pathogenic stages of these diseases. This review concentrates on the usefulness of animal models for a precise understanding of these very early stages. It must be emphasized that studying animal models cannot answer all the problems presented by endocrine/organ-specific autoimmune diseases as seen in the clinic. It must be expected – considering the different etiologies in the different animal models (see below) – that the causes of the diseases in the human and the involvement of various genes and environmental factors may also vary. Yet, particularly in the study of the pre-autoimmune phases of the diseases, there is hardly any alternative to the study of animal models. Only limited series of experiments can be carried out in human subjects at risk to develop such diseases. Moreover, a general semblance (blueprint) of the etio-pathogenesis found in the animal models can lead the way for human studies. Efforts to understand the patho-physiology of the early stages of endocrine/organ-specific autoimmune diseases have mainly involved animal models that ”spontaneously” develop such diseases. Of these the bio-breeding diabetes-prone (BB-DP) rat and the non-obese diabetes (NOD) mouse are the most well studied, yet many studies have also been carried out in the obese strain (OS) chicken. Apart from these spontaneous models there are animal models that are induced by environmental perturbations (viruses, toxic substances), by thymectomy procedures or by genetic manipulations, e.g., the RIP-LCMV model and the BDC 2.5 TCR mouse model. A general blueprint has emerged from the studies into the early stages of the pathogenesis of endocrine/organ-specific autoimmune diseases in these animal models: animals at risk to develop endocrine/organ-specific autoimmune diseases show various pre-autoimmune aberrancies in their target glands, T cells, macrophages (Mφ) and dendritic cells (DC). The presumably aberrant target cells, T cells, DC and Mφ need to interact abnormally before autoimmune disease can fully develop. In this abnormal interaction additional aberrancies in other regulatory systems may play a role in a further exacerbation of the self-directed immune response, such as defects in the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis system. The various aberrancies are partly genetically determined by a variety of separate genes, particularly MHC-related genes, but they may also be environmentally induced (e.g., via viruses, high iodine diet, and other experimental manipulations). Recently evidence has been gathered for pre-autoimmune aberrancies similar to the animal models in the DC/ Mφ compartment and the HPA axis in humans at risk to develop endocrine/organ-specific autoimmune diseases. However, analogous pre-autoimmune abnormalities in human target glands or in T cell function have not yet been found with certainty. We believe that animal models of endocrine/organ-specific autoimmune disease still hold immense promise for the discovery of pathways, genes and environmental factors that determine the development of endocrine/organ-specific autoimmune diseases. Animals affected by such diseases provide a unique opportunity to uncover disease-associated pathways, which are complicated to define in man.

Publishing year







Springer Seminars in Immunopathology





Document type

Journal article




  • Endocrinology and Diabetes




  • ISSN: 0344-4325