Human thymus is composed of several discrete compartments. Stage III thymocytes, located mainly in the medulla, stain brightly with anti-T3 monoclonal antibody; stage II thymocytes, located in the cortex, are T3- but react with T6 antibodies. The earliest identifiable intrathymic cell (stage I) expresses the sheep erythrocyte glycoprotein T11 but not T6 or T3 antigens. Within the thymus a phenotypically heterogeneous pool of proliferating lymphoblasts is present. This capacity to proliferate without in vitro activation is mainly attributable to thymocytes unable to respond to mitogens and expressing the cortical T6 marker. Both T3+ and T3-T6- cells respond to mitogen. However, in order to exhibit maximal proliferative responses, T3+ but not T3-T6- thymocytes require the addition of exogenous IL 2. Thymocyte subsets at distinct stages of intrathymic differentiation were then analyzed for glucocorticoid (GC) receptor content by using a whole cell assay with 3H-triamcinolone acetonide as tracer. The least mature T3-T6- thymocyte subset contained the highest levels of GC receptors . T3+ thymocytes exhibited a receptor content higher than that found in T6+ cells and similar to that reported for peripheral blood lymphocytes. Apart from the number, the GC receptor sites in all thymocyte subsets were similar in their affinities, kinetic characteristics, specificity for steroids, and ability to undergo translocation from cytoplasm to nucleus, and they behave in all these respects like binding sites of GC receptors in lymphoid and other cells. Independently of both phenotype and GC receptor content, all in vivo activated thymocytes (i.e., spontaneously proliferating cells) were similarly sensitive to the steroid inhibitory action in vitro. Both in the presence and in the absence of exogenous IL 1 or IL 2, the PHA-induced mitogenesis of T3-T6- cells was less inhibited by GC than that of T3+ thymocytes. Exogenous IL 1 and IL 2 were equally effective in removing, although not completely, the GC inhibition on T3-T6- proliferative responses to PHA. Relative to T3+ cell mitogenesis, only exogenous IL 2 was able to antagonize the steroid inhibitory action. The capacity observed in vitro of GC to differentially affect the proliferative potential or the cell viability of thymocytes belonging to functionally distinct subsets suggests that these hormones could regulate the intrathymic maturative pathways. Finally, although at present the physiologic relevance of the highest expression of GC receptors in intrathymic precursor cells remains unclear, the receptor density may be considered a marker of differentiation for the T lymphoid lineage.

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