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J Exp Med. 2007 Jun 11;204(6):1267-72. Epub 2007 May 14.

RANK signals from CD4(+)3(-) inducer cells regulate development of Aire-expressing epithelial cells in the thymic medulla.

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Medical Research Council Centre for Immune Regulation, Institute for Biomedical Research, University of Birmingham, B15 2TT Birmingham, UK.


Aire-expressing medullary thymic epithelial cells (mTECs) play a key role in preventing autoimmunity by expressing tissue-restricted antigens to help purge the emerging T cell receptor repertoire of self-reactive specificities. Here we demonstrate a novel role for a CD4(+)3(-) inducer cell population, previously linked to development of organized secondary lymphoid structures and maintenance of T cell memory in the functional regulation of Aire-mediated promiscuous gene expression in the thymus. CD4(+)3(-) cells are closely associated with mTECs in adult thymus, and in fetal thymus their appearance is temporally linked with the appearance of Aire(+) mTECs. We show that RANKL signals from this cell promote the maturation of RANK-expressing CD80(-)Aire(-) mTEC progenitors into CD80(+)Aire(+) mTECs, and that transplantation of RANK-deficient thymic stroma into immunodeficient hosts induces autoimmunity. Collectively, our data reveal cellular and molecular mechanisms leading to the generation of Aire(+) mTECs and highlight a previously unrecognized role for CD4(+)3(-)RANKL(+) inducer cells in intrathymic self-tolerance.

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