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Keywords:

  • negative selection;
  • T cell recirculation;
  • thymus;
  • transplantation

Transplantation tolerance is a dynamic state that involves several homeostatic mechanisms intrinsic to the host. One of these mechanisms is activation-induced T cell death (AICD). However, it is unclear where AICD takes place during alloreactive responses. Since activated T cells can re-enter the thymus, we hypothesized that mature T cells activated by an allograft could be deleted upon re-entry into the thymus. To test this hypothesis, we used wild-type or 2C TCR transgenic mice receiving syngeneic or allogeneic heterotopic, vascularized heart grafts. First, we demonstrated that ex vivo CFSE-labelled T cells re-entered the thymus when transferred into allograft recipients but not when transferred into isograft recipients. Next, we compared the changes in cell subset numbers and incidence of apoptosis in the thymi and spleens of allograft or isograft recipients. Seven days after transplantation, at a time in which all the allografts were undergoing rejection, cells expressing donor-MHC class II molecules had migrated to the thymus and to the spleen. In the thymus of allograft recipients, overall cellularity was significantly reduced by 40% and associated with an increase in the number of double negative (CD4CD8) thymocytes and a decrease in double positive (CD4+CD8+) thymocytes, consistent with increased negative selection of thymocytes. Additionally, thymi of allograft recipients showed an increase in the number of recently activated, mature T cells (TCRhi, CD25+, CD44+) and a significant increase in the number of apoptotic cells, especially in the thymic medulla, that involved mature T cells as indicated by the TCRhi, CD44+, CD4 or CD8 single positive phenotype. Spleens of allograft recipients were increased in size and cellularity but did not show any of the changes in cell subsets seen in the thymi. Our data show that after allografting there is an increase in apoptotic cell death that is associated with negative selection of developing thymocytes as well as of alloreactive mature T cells that have re-entered the thymus upon activation in the periphery. This may occur upon migration of graft-derived antigen-presenting cells to the thymus.