Circumstantial evidence suggests strongly that epidermal Langerhans cells (LC) alone among epidermal cells (EC) are responsible for generating an immunogenic signal for contact hypersensitivity (CH) after epicutaneous application of hapten. However, data obtained from previous studies performed with intact skin or isolated EC do not address the immunogenic capacity of a second dendritic, bone marrow-derived population of cells that resides within the epidermis, Thy-1+ epidermal cells. To identify the cellular source(s) of the antigenic signals emerging from the epidermis, purified preparations of LC, Thy-1+ cells, and keratinocytes were prepared from CBA/J mouse skin. Each cell type was derivatized in vitro with TNBS and inoculated via various routes into syngeneic mice that were assayed for the induction of CH and specific unresponsiveness. IA+ LC, when derivatized with hapten and inoculated into mice, induced CH without evidence of down-regulation regardless of the route of immunization. Derivatized Thy-1+ EC did not deliver a positive signal for CH. Rather, Thy-1+ EC possessed the capacity to initiate down-regulation of the CH response when they were delivered i.v. We conclude that all cellular elements necessary for the induction and regulation of CH after epicutaneous application of hapten to skin reside within the epidermis. The resident, dendritic, bone marrow-derived populations within the epidermis have the capacity to determine the outcome of an epicutaneous antigenic encounter.

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