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Immunol Cell Biol. 2011 Jan;89(1):45-53. doi: 10.1038/icb.2010.123. Epub 2010 Nov 2.

Regulatory T-cell differentiation versus clonal deletion of autoreactive thymocytes.

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Institute for Immunology, Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, Germany.


The concept of clonal deletion of immune cells that carry an autoreactive antigen receptor was a central prediction of Burnet's clonal selection theory. A series of classical experiments in the late 1980s revealed that certain immature thymocytes upon encounter of 'self' are indeed removed from the T-cell repertoire before their release into the blood circulation. A second essential cornerstone of immunological tolerance, not anticipated by Burnett, has more recently surfaced through the discovery of Foxp3(+) regulatory T cells (Treg). Intriguingly, it appears that the expression of an autoreactive T-cell receptor is a shared characteristic of T cells that are subject to clonal deletion as well as of those deviated into the Treg lineage. This is all the more striking as Treg differentiation for the most part branches off from mainstream CD4T cell development during thymocyte maturation in the thymus, that is, it may neither temporally nor spatially be separated from clonal deletion. This raises the question of how an apparently identical stimulus, namely the encounter of 'self' during thymocyte development, can elicit fundamentally different outcomes such as apoptotic cell death on the one hand or differentiation into a highly specialized T-cell lineage on the other hand. Here, we will review the T-cell intrinsic and extrinsic factors that have been implicated in intrathymic Treg differentiation and discuss how these parameters may determine whether an autoreactive major histocompatibility complex class II-restricted thymocyte is deviated into the Treg lineage or subject to clonal deletion.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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