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In Vivo. 1999 May-Jun;13(3):267-94.

Molecular biological ontogenesis of the thymic reticulo-epithelial cell network during the organization of the cellular microenvironment.

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  • 1Department of Pathology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA.


The thymus provides an optimal humoral microenvironment for the development of immunocompetent T cells. Although yolk sac derived pre-T, committed hematopoietic stem cells enter the thymus using a homing receptor, the immigration process also requires secretion of a peptide called thymotaxin by the cells of the reticulo-epithelial (RE) network of the thymic cellular microenvironment. The majority of RE cells have a round or irregular pale nucleus, which contains few, scattered, chromatin granules with a defined, spherical nucleolus, rich in basic histones. Their cytoplasm occasionally displays RNP granules, and is rich in non-histone proteins, fine phospholipid, lipid or cholesterin granules, and vacuoles filled with secreted substances. The cells of the subcapsular, endocrine RE cell layer (giant or nurse cells), characterized by PAS positive granules, express A2B5/TE4 cell surface antigens and MHC Class I (HLA A, B, C) molecules. In contrast to medullar RE cells, these subcapsular nurse cells also produce thymosins beta 3 beta 4. Thymic nurse cells (TNCs) display a neuroendocrine cell specific immunophenotype (IP): Thy-1+, A2B5+, TT+, TE4+, UJ13/A+, UJ127.11+, UJ167.11+, UJ181.4+, and presence of common leukocyte antigen (CLA+). Medullar RE cells display MHC Class II (HLA-DP, HLA-DQ, HLA-DR) molecule restriction. These cells also contain transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta) type II receptors and participate in the positive selection of T cells. Transmission electron-microscopic (TEM) observations have defined four functional subtypes of medullar RE cells: undifferentiated, squamous, villous, and cystic. All subtypes are connected by desmosomes. Immunocytochemical observations have shown that the secreted thymic hormones, thymosin alpha 1 and thymopoietin (and its short form, thymopentin or TP5), are produced by the same RE cells. Thymic RE cells also produce numerous cytokines including IL1, IL6, G-CSF, M-CSF, and GM-CSF that likely are important in various stages of thymocyte activation and differentiation. The co-existence of pituitary hormone and neuropeptide secretion, such as growth hormone, prolactin, adrenocorticotropic hormone, thyroid stimulating hormone, triiodothyronine, somatostatin, oxytocin, follicle stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, arginine vasopressin, growth hormone releasing hormone, corticotropin releasing hormone, nerve growth factor, vasoactive intestinal peptide, (pro) enkephalin, and beta-endorphin, production of a number of interleukins and growth factors, as well as the expression of receptors for all, by the same RE cell is an unique molecular biological phenomenon. These data illustrate the immensely important and diverse immuno-neuroendocrine functions of the thymic RE cellular network. Based on our systematic observations of the thymus in humans and other mammalian species, we suggest that the thymic RE cell network represents an extremely important cellular and humoral microenvironment in homeopathic regulatory mechanisms of the multicellular organism. Intrathymic T lymphocyte selection is a complex, multistep process, influenced by several functionally specialized RE cell subtypes and under constant immuno-neuroendocrine regulation, reflecting the dynamic changes of the organism.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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