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Abstract

In the present report we have studied the expression of a lymphocyte homing receptor, the CD44 antigen, and of HECA-452, a high endothelial-specific antigen, during the development of the human immune system. We found that prothymocyte immigrants of the thymus already expressed the CD44 antigen. Similarly, the first peripheral T lymphocytes in fetal lymph nodes, tonsils and gut-associated lymphoid tissue were also CD44+. Cortical thymocytes and germinal center cells were CD44. CD44 antigen expression was, thus, not limited to mature recirculating lymphocytes. This suggests that CD44 may not only be involved in recirculation of mature lymphocytes but also in the migration of prothymocytes to their site of maturation, i.e. the thymus. High endothelial venules (HEV) were not demonstrable at the early onset of lymphocyte immigration into the developing lymphoid organs. However, when large-scale influx of lymphocytes occurred, it paralleled HEV development. HECA-452 antigen expression preceded the morphological transformation of endothelium into a HEV phenotype. Expression of this antigen therefore, independently reflected the specialized nature of high endothelium. In a patient with complete DiGeorge's syndrome normal HEV developed, indicating that the presence of T lymphocytes is not a requirement for HEV development. Interestingly, a subpopulation of venules located in the thymic medulla near the corticomedullary junction expressed the HECA-452 antigen. These vessels, which had flat or intermediately high endothelium, are probably involved in lymphocyte migration to the thymus.