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BACKGROUND: The non-obese diabetic (NOD) mouse is a model of human type 1 diabetes in which autoreactive T cells mediate destruction of pancreatic islet beta cells. Although known to be triggered by cytotoxic T cells, apoptosis has not been unequivocally localized to beta cells in spontaneously diabetic NOD mice. We created a model of accelerated beta-cell destruction mediated by T cells from spontaneously diabetic NOD mice to facilitate the direct detection of apoptosis in beta cells. MATERIALS AND METHODS: NOD.scid (severe combined immunodeficiency) mice were crossed with bm1 mice transgenically expressing the costimulatory molecule B7-1 (CD80) in their beta cells, to generate B7-1 NOD.scid mice. Apoptosis in islet cells was measured as DNA strand breakage by the TdT-mediated-dUTP-nick end labeling (TUNEL) technique. RESULTS: Adoptive transfer of splenocytes from spontaneously diabetic NOD mice into B7-1 NOD.scid mice caused diabetes in recipients within 12-16 days. Mononuclear cell infiltration and apoptosis were significantly greater in the islets of B7-1 NOD.scid mice than in nontransgenic NOD.scid mice. Dual immunolabeling for TUNEL and either B-7 or insulin, or the T cell markers CD4 and CD8, and colocalization by confocal microscopy clearly demonstrated apoptosis in beta cells as well in a relatively larger number of infiltrating T cells. The clearance time of apoptotic beta cells was estimated to be less than 6 min. CONCLUSIONS: B7-1 transgenic beta cells undergo apoptosis during their accelerated destruction in response to NOD mouse effector T cells. Rapid clearance implies that beta cells undergoing apoptosis would be detected only rarely during more protracted disease in spontaneously diabetic NOD mice.