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Anticancer Res. 2000 May-Jun;20(3A):1871-88.

The role of the reticulo-epithelial (RE) cell network in the immuno-neuroendocrine regulation of intrathymic lymphopoiesis.

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


The thyrnus provides an optimal cellular and humoral microenvironment for the development of immunocompetent T lymphocytes. 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 thymic RE cells are functionally specialized based on their location within the thymic microenvironment. Thus, although subcapsular, cortical, and medullary RE cells are derived from a common, endodermal in origin epithelial precursor cell, their unique location within the gland causes their specialization in terms of their immunophenotypical and in situ physiological properties. The subcapsular, endocrine, RE cell layer (giant or nurse cells) is comprised of cells filled with PAS positive granules, which also express A2B5/TE4 cell surface antigens and MHC Class I (HLA A, B, C) molecules. In contrast to the medullary RE cells, these subcapsular nurse cells also produce thymosins beta 3 and beta 4. The 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 (TGF)-beta type II receptors and are involved in the positive selection of T cells. Transmission electronmicroscopic (TEM) observations have defined four, functional subtypes of medullary RE cells: undifferentiated squamous, villous and cystic. All subtypes were connected with desmosomes. The secreted thy nic hormones, thymulin, thymosin-alpha 1 and thymopoietin (its short form, thymopentin or TP5) were detected immunocytochemically to be produced by RE cells. Thymic RE cells also produce numerous cytokines including IL-1, IL-6, G-CSF, M-CSF, and GM-CSF molecules that likely are important in various stages of thymocyte activation and differentiation. The co-existence of pituitary hormone and neuropeptide secretion [growth hormone (GH), prolactin (PRL), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), triiodothyronine (T3), somatostatin, oxytocin (OT), follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), arginine vasopressin (AVP), growth hormone releasing hormone (GHRH), corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH), nerve growth factor (NGF), vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP), pro-enkephalin (pro-enk), and beta-endorphin (beta-end)], as well as production of a number of interleukins and growth factors and expression of receptors for all, by RE cells is an unique molecular biological phenomenon. The thymic RE cell network is most probably comprised of cells organized into sub-networks--functional units composed of RE cells with differing hormone production/hormone receptor expression profiles, involved in the various stages of T lymphocyte maturation. Furthermore, it is quite possible that even on the level of individual RE cells, the numerous projections associated with a single cell, which engulf developing lymphocytes, nurturing and guiding them in their maturation, may differ in their hormone production and/or hormone receptor expression profile, thus allowing a single cell to be involved in distinct, separate steps of the T cell maturation process. Based on our systematic observations of the thymus in humans and other mammalian species, we suggest that the thymic RE cells represent an extremely important cellular and humoral network within the thymic microenvironment and are involved in the homeopathic regulation mechanisms of the multicellular organism, in addition to the presentation of various antigens to developing lymphocytes, and providing growth regulatory signals which may range from stimulatory to apoptotic signaling within the thymus. (ABSTRACT TRUNCA.

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