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Blood. 2013 Jan 3;121(1):107-17. doi: 10.1182/blood-2012-05-433508. Epub 2012 Oct 4.

Differential effects of γc cytokines on postselection differentiation of CD8 thymocytes.

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Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer, Université de Montréal, Montreal, QC, Canada.


The primary consequence of positive selection is to render thymocytes responsive to cytokines and chemokines expressed in the thymic medulla. In the present study, our main objective was to discover which cytokines could support the differentiation of positively selected thymocytes. To this end, we have developed an in vitro model suitable for high-throughput analyses of positive selection and CD8 T-cell differentiation. The model involves coculture of TCR(hi)CD5(int)CD69(-) double-positive (DP) thymocytes with peptide-pulsed OP9 cells and γc-cytokines. We report that IL-4, IL-7, and IL-21 have nonredundant effects on positively selected DP thymocytes. IL-7 signaling phosphorylates STAT5 and ERK; induces Foxo1, Klf2, and S1pr1; and supports the differentiation of classic CD8 T cells. IL-4 activates STAT6 and ERK and supports the differentiation of CD8(int)PD-L1(hi)CD44(hi)EOMES(+) innate CD8 T cells. IL-21 is produced by thymic epithelial cells and the IL-21 receptor-α is strongly induced on DP thymocytes undergoing positive selection. IL-21 signaling phosphorylates STAT3 and STAT5, but not ERK, and does not support CD8 T-cell differentiation. However, IL-21 has a unique ability to up-regulate BCL-6, expand DP thymocytes undergoing positive selection, and increase the production of mature T cells. Our data suggest that injection of recombinant IL-21 might enhance thymic output in subjects with age- or disease-related thymic atrophy.

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