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OBJECTIVES--The humoral immune response against a broad spectrum of cartilage antigens (cellular and matrix antigens) was studied in a group of patients who showed resorption and/or rejection of transplanted cartilage in nasal surgery. METHODS--Sera were obtained from patients with successful and unsuccessful cartilage grafting in the nose, from age and sex-matched healthy donors and from patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Antibodies to cartilage components were analysed by the following methods: (1) indirect immunofluorescence on cartilage sections, (2) ELISA using cultured human chondrocytes, isolated chondrocyte membranes and purified collagens type I, II, III, VI, IX and XI, and (3) immunoblotting with purified collagens and chondrocyte cell membranes. RESULTS--In the cartilage grafting group showing resorption problems, levels of anti-collagen antibodies were significantly higher against native collagen types IX (p < 0.002) and XI (p < 0.002) compared with the non-resorption group and the normal donors. Both transplantation groups revealed elevated reactivities against isolated chondrocytes in the ELISA. In contrast, no reactivity was detectable against collagens type II, III, and VI and chondrocyte cell membranes by both ELISA and immunoblotting. CONCLUSIONS--These data demonstrate for the first time the existence of a humoral immune response, primarily directed against the so called 'minor cartilage collagens', in patients showing cartilage resorption. Autoreactivities to collagen which are typical of inflammatory rheumatic diseases may also play an important role in the repeated failure of cartilage grafting.