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J Exp Med. 2002 Aug 5;196(3):379-87.

Phenotype, localization, and mechanism of suppression of CD4(+)CD25(+) human thymocytes.

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  • 1Department of Internal Medicine, University Florence, Italy.


Phenotypic markers, localization, functional activities, and mechanisms of action in vitro of CD4(+)CD25(+) T cells, purified from postnatal human thymuses, were investigated. These cells showed poor or no proliferation in mixed lymphocyte culture (MLC), and suppressed in a dose-dependent fashion the proliferative response to allogeneic stimulation of CD4(+)CD25(-) thymocytes. Virtually all CD4(+)CD25(+) thymocytes constitutively expressed cytoplasmic T lymphocyte antigen (CTLA)-4, surface tumor necrosis factor type 2 receptor (TNFR2), and CCR8. They prevalently localized to perivascular areas of fibrous septa and responded to the chemoattractant activity of CCL1/I-309, which was found to be produced by either thymic medullary macrophages or fibrous septa epithelial cells. After polyclonal activation, CD4(+)CD25(+) thymocytes did not produce the cytokines interleukin (IL)-2, IL-4, IL-5, IL-13, interferon gamma, and only a very few produced IL-10, but all they expressed on their surface CTLA-4 and the majority of them also transforming growth factor (TGF)-beta1. The suppressive activity of these cells was contact dependent and associated with the lack of IL-2 receptor (IL-2R) alpha-chain (CD25) expression in target cells. Such a suppressive activity was partially inhibited by either anti-CTLA-4 or anti-TGF-beta1, and was completely blocked by a mixture of these monoclonal antibodies, which were also able to restore in target T cells the expression of IL-2R alpha-chain and, therefore, their responsiveness to IL-2. These data demonstrate that CD4(+)CD25(+) human thymocytes represent a population of regulatory cells that migrate in response to the chemokine CCL1/I-309 and exert their suppressive function via the inhibition of IL-2R alpha-chain in target T cells, induced by the combined activity of CTLA-4 and membrane TGF-beta1.

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