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J Immunol. 1999 May 1;162(9):5317-26.

Thymus and autoimmunity: production of CD25+CD4+ naturally anergic and suppressive T cells as a key function of the thymus in maintaining immunologic self-tolerance.

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  • 1Department of Immunopathology, Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology, Japan.


This study shows that the normal thymus produces immunoregulatory CD25+4+8- thymocytes capable of controlling self-reactive T cells. Transfer of thymocyte suspensions depleted of CD25+4+8- thymocytes, which constitute approximately 5% of steroid-resistant mature CD4+8- thymocytes in normal naive mice, produces various autoimmune diseases in syngeneic athymic nude mice. These CD25+4+8- thymocytes are nonproliferative (anergic) to TCR stimulation in vitro, but potently suppress the proliferation of other CD4+8- or CD4-8+ thymocytes; breakage of their anergic state in vitro by high doses of IL-2 or anti-CD28 Ab simultaneously abrogates their suppressive activity; and transfer of such suppression-abrogated thymocyte suspensions produces autoimmune disease in nude mice. These immunoregulatory CD25+4+8- thymocytes/T cells are functionally distinct from activated CD25+4+ T cells derived from CD25-4+ thymocytes/T cells in that the latter scarcely exhibits suppressive activity in vitro, although both CD25+4+ populations express a similar profile of cell surface markers. Furthermore, the CD25+4+8- thymocytes appear to acquire their anergic and suppressive property through the thymic selection process, since TCR transgenic mice develop similar anergic/suppressive CD25+4+8- thymocytes and CD25+4+ T cells that predominantly express TCRs utilizing endogenous alpha-chains, but RAG-2-deficient TCR transgenic mice do not. These results taken together indicate that anergic/suppressive CD25+4+8- thymocytes and peripheral T cells in normal naive mice may constitute a common T cell lineage functionally and developmentally distinct from other T cells, and that production of this unique immunoregulatory T cell population can be another key function of the thymus in maintaining immunologic self-tolerance.

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