It is unclear which growth factors, if any, are involved in the growth and differentiation of immature T cells in the thymus. Because IL-1 has been previously implicated in thymocyte proliferation, we examined the effects of IL-1 on precursor thymocytes, the CD4-CD8- or double-negative (DN) cells. We show that IL-1 (together with Con A) is a growth factor for DN, TCR- alpha beta-cells in vitro. After 5 days of culture in IL-1 and Con A, a number of phenotypic changes were observed and two subsets of DN cells were distinguished. One subset expressed full length TCR-alpha and -beta mRNA and surface alpha beta TCR, the other expressed low levels of full length TCR-gamma together with high levels of full length TCR-delta mRNA. Thus, DN cells are induced by IL-1 and Con A to proliferate and express TCR without parallel acquisition of CD4 or CD8 markers. These data suggest that IL-1 drives early steps of intrathymic T cell differentiation.

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