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Eur J Immunol. 1994 Jan;24(1):222-8.

Ultrastructural analysis of thymic nurse cell epithelium.

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Institute for General and Experimental Pathology, Medical School, University of Innsbruck, Austria.


Thymic nurse cells (TNC), a paradigmatic cell type of cortical epithelium, are large lymphoid-epithelial cell complexes of thymocytes enclosed within vacuoles lined by the epithelial cell membrane. TNC express major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I and class II molecules on their surface and vacuole-lining membranes at high density and it was suggested that TNC provide an optimal microenvironment for positive selection of T cells. In this report we present electron microscopical data demonstrating that chicken TNC display morphological structures of exocytosis previously shown for hormone-secreting cells. In TNC, however, exocytosis is restricted to the capillary cleft between the epithelial cell and engulfed thymocytes. Thus, besides physical contact between the epithelial cell and enclosed thymocytes, TNC may additionally influence the development of thymocytes through release of soluble factors in a restricted microenvironment. By employing the 3-(2,4-dinitroanilino)-3'-amino-N-methyl-propylamine technique which at the ultrastructural level detects acidic organelles involved in processing of antigens presented by MHC class II molecules, we also show that TNC contain acidic compartments similar to classical antigen-presenting cells, i.e. early and late endosomes and lysosomes, albeit in a lower amount than in thymic dendritic cells. This fact provides evidence that TNC not only are capable of antigen presentation but also possess the intracellular machinery for antigen processing.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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