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EMBO J. 1997 May 1;16(9):2282-93.

T-cell receptor ligation by peptide/MHC induces activation of a caspase in immature thymocytes: the molecular basis of negative selection.

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  • 1Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Department of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA.


T-cell receptors (TCRs) are created by a stochastic gene rearrangement process during thymocyte development, generating thymocytes bearing useful, as well as unwanted, specificities. Within the latter group, autoreactive thymocytes arise which are subsequently eliminated via a thymocyte-specific apoptotic mechanism, termed negative selection. The molecular basis of this deletion is unknown. Here, we show that TCR triggering by peptide/MHC ligands activates a caspase in double-positive (DP) CD4+ CD8+ thymocytes, resulting in their death. Inhibition of this enzymatic activity prevents antigen-induced death of DP thymocytes in fetal thymic organ culture (FTOC) from TCR transgenic mice as well as apoptosis induced by anti-CD3epsilon monoclonal antibody and corticosteroids in FTOC of normal C57BL/6 mice. Hence, a common caspase mediates immature thymocyte susceptibility to cell death.

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