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J Leukoc Biol. 2004 Jun;75(6):951-61. Epub 2004 Mar 12.

Molecular mechanisms governing thymocyte migration: combined role of chemokines and extracellular matrix.

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Department of Immunology, Oswaldo Cruz Institute, Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, Ave. Brasil 4365, Manguinhos, 21045-900-Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil.


Cell migration is crucial for thymocyte differentiation, and the cellular interactions involved now begin to be unraveled, with chemokines, extracellular matrix (ECM) proteins, and their corresponding receptors being relevant in such oriented movement of thymocytes. This notion derives from in vitro, ex vivo, and in vivo experimental data, including those obtained in genetically engineered and spontaneous mutant mice. Thymic microenvironmental cells produce both groups of molecules, whereas developing thymocytes express chemokine and ECM receptors. It is important that although chemokines and ECM proteins can drive thymocyte migration per se, a combined role of these molecules likely concurs for the resulting migration patterns of thymocytes in their various differentiation stages. In this respect, among ECM moieties, there are proteins with opposing functions, such as laminin or fibronectin versus galectin-3, which promote, respectively, adhesion and de-adhesion of thymocytes to the thymic microenvironment. How chemokines and ECM are produced and degraded remains to be more clearly defined. Nevertheless, matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) likely play a role in the intrathymic ECM breakdown. It is interesting that these molecules also degrade chemokines. Thus, the physiological migration of thymocytes should be conceived as a resulting vector of multiple, simultaneous, or sequential stimuli, involving chemokines, adhesive, and de-adhesive ECM proteins. Moreover, these interactions may be physiologically regulated in situ by matrix MMPs and are influenced by hormones. Accordingly, one can predict that pathological changes in any of these loops may result in abnormal thymocyte migration. This actually occurs in the murine infection by the protozoan Trypanosoma cruzi, the causative agent of Chagas disease. In this model, the abnormal release of immature thymocytes to peripheral lymphoid organs is correlated with the higher migratory response to ECM and chemokines. Lastly, the fine dissection of the mechanisms governing thymocyte migration will provide new clues for designing therapeutic strategies targeting developing T cells. The most important function of the thymus is to generate T lymphocytes, which once leaving the organ, are able to colonize specific regions of peripheral lymphoid organs, the T cell zones, where they can mount and regulate cell-mediated, immune responses. This intrathymic T cell differentiation is a complex sequence of biological events, comprising cell proliferation, differential membrane protein expression, gene rearrangements, massive programmed cell death, and cell migration. In this review, we will focus on the mechanisms involved in controlling the migration of thymocytes, from the entrance of cell precursors into the organ to the exit of mature T cells toward peripheral lymphoid organs. Nevertheless, to better comprehend this issue, it appeared worthwhile to briefly comment on some key aspects of thymocyte differentiation and the tissue context in which it takes place, the thymic microenvironment.

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