Corticosteroids regulate epithelial cell differentiation and Hassall body formation in the human thymus.
The presence of characteristic epithelial swirls called Hassall bodies within the human thymic medulla has been used as an indicator of ongoing or recent thymopoiesis. We present a case where Hassall bodies were present in the absence of current or past thymopoiesis. The patient had been treated with corticosteroids for presumed asthma before his diagnosis of X-linked SCID. Two other cases of nonimmunodeficient patients treated with high-dose corticosteroids had markedly increased numbers of thymic Hassall bodies. To determine whether corticosteroid treatment induces thymic epithelial (TE) differentiation to form Hassall bodies, mAbs reactive with specific cytokeratins (CKs), filaggrin, and involucrin were used to define distinct stages of TE cell differentiation. Treatment of primary TE monolayers with hydrocortisone in vitro induced expression of involucrin and high-molecular-mass CKs that are characteristic of TE differentiation. Treatment of thymic organ cultures with hydrocortisone induced both medullary and subcapsular cortical TE cells to express CK6, a differentiation marker that is normally expressed only by Hassall bodies in vivo. These experimental studies combined with the case observations indicate that exogenous corticosteroids can regulate terminal differentiation of TE cells both in vitro and in vivo. Thus, the presence of Hassall bodies in thymus from corticosteroid-treated patients cannot be taken as an absolute indication of previous thymopoiesis. Because corticosteroids are also made within the thymus under normal physiologic conditions, these studies support the hypothesis that endogenous corticosteroids may play a role in normal TE differentiation and Hassall body formation in vivo.
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