The development of conditions for culturing normal human thymic epithelial (TE) cells free from contaminating stromal cells has allowed us to characterize a number of cytokines produced by TE cells. Using cDNA probes for human IL-6, granulocyte-monocyte-CSF, and leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF), we identified mRNA for these cytokines by RNA blot analysis of total RNA preparations derived from TE cells. We demonstrated that TE cells produced IL-6 transcripts and that TE cell culture supernatants contained IL-6 biologic activity, as determined by the ability to support proliferation of the T1165 plasmacytoma line. The 1.0-kilobase (kb) transcript of granulocyte-monocyte-CSF was also detected in TE cell-derived total RNA. TE cell culture supernatants contained LIF activity, as determined by proliferation of the murine cell line DA-1a, and a 4.0-kb LIF transcript was detected in TE cell-derived total RNA preparations. The 4.0-kb LIF transcript from TE cell-derived total RNA corresponded in size to the LIF transcripts in PMA-activated T lymphocytes. Thus, using biologic assays and RNA blot analysis, we demonstrated that cultured normal human TE cells produced both immunoregulatory cytokines and cytokines that drive various differentiation stages of human hematopoiesis. Our findings support the hypothesis that TE cells may play a role in providing cytokines that are important for the proliferation and differentiation of hematopoietic precursor cells that migrate to the thymus during fetal and postnatal human thymic development.

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