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J Virol. 1992 May;66(5):3155-60.

Viral infection of the thymus.

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Department of Microbiology and Immunology, UCLA School of Medicine 90024-1747.


We have examined infection of the thymus during congenitally acquired chronic lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) infection of mice, a classic model of antigen-specific T-cell tolerance. Our results show that (i) infection starts at the fetal stage and is maintained throughout adulthood, and (ii) this chronic infection of the thymus can be eliminated by transfer of virus-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL) that infiltrate the thymus and clear all viral products from both medullary and cortical regions. Elimination of virus from the thymus results in abrogation of tolerance. During the fetal stage, the predominant cell type infected is the earliest precursor of T cells with a surface phenotype of Thy1+ CD4- CD8- J11d+. In the adult thymus, infection is confined primarily to the cortisone-resistant thymocytes present in the medullary region. The infected cells are CD4+ and J11d+. The presence of J11d, a marker usually associated with immature thymocytes, on infected single positive CD4+ "mature" thymocytes is intriguing and suggests that infection by this noncytolytic virus may affect development of T cells. There is minimal infection of the CD8+ medullary thymocytes or of the double positive (CD4+ CD8+) cells present in the cortex. Infection within the cortex is confined to the stromal cells. Interestingly, there is infection of the double negative (CD4- CD8-) thymocytes in the adult thymus, showing that even during adulthood the newly developing T cells are susceptible to infection by LCMV. Virus can be eliminated from the thymuses of these carrier mice by adoptive transfer of medullary region first and then from the thymic cortex. This result clearly shows the need to reevaluate the widely held notion that mature T cells are unable to reenter the thymus. In fact, in our experiments the donor T cells made up to 20 to 30% of the total cells in the thymus at 5 to 7 days after the transfer. The number of donor T cells declined as virus was eliminated from the thymus, and at 1 month posttransfer, the donor T cells were hardly detectable. The results of this study examining the dynamics of viral infection and clearance from the thymus, the primary site of T-cell development, have implications for understanding tolerance induction in chronic viral infections.

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