Human thymic epithelium and T cell development: current issues and future directions.
The human thymus develops early in fetal gestation with morphologic maturity reached by the beginning of the second trimester. TE3+ cortical thymic epithelium is most likely derived from endodermal third pharyngeal pouch, while A2B5/TE4+ medullary and subcapsular cortical thymic epithelium is likely derived from third pharyngeal cleft ectoderm. Fetal liver and yolk sac CD7+, CD4-, CD8-, surface(s) CD3- T cell precursors begin to colonize the thymus between 7 and 8 weeks of fetal gestation, followed by rapid expression of other T lineage surface molecules on developing thymocytes. CD7+, CD4-, CD8-, sCD3- thymocytes give rise to T cells of both the TCR alpha beta and TCR gamma delta lineages. Human thymic epithelial cells produce numerous cytokines including IL1, IL6, TGF alpha, leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF), M-CSF, G-CSF and GM-CSF- molecules that likely play important roles in multiple stages of thymocyte selection, activation and differentiation. Important areas for future research on human thymic epithelium include study of lymphoid and non-lineage differentiation potentials of CD7+, CD4-, CD8-, sCD3- T cell precursors in response to TE-cell produced cytokines, study of the triggering signals of cytokine release within the thymic microenvironment, and study of TCR-MHC mediated TE-thymocyte interactions.
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