Exploring the potency of normal and pathological human thymic epithelial cells

Thymic epithelial cells (TECs) are organised in a unique 3D network that is critical for the development of efficient and self-tolerant T-cells. We report for the first time that the human thymus of all ages, even old and involuted, contains a significant number (up to 30%) of clonogenic TECs with extensive growth potential. All clonogenic TECs derive from a common EpCAM+ precursor, which within 48h in culture undergoes a molecular switch and gives rise to refringent EpCAM- colonies and stratified EpCAM+ colonies. The latter two subpopulations can be distinguished based on their morphology, their expression of genes implicated in epidermal stratification and their expression of genes implicated in epithelia-mesenchymal transition. Clonal analysis revealed that clonogenic cells are hierarchically organised, refringent cells being higher in the hierarchy than stratified cells. Although the thymus normally involutes with age, it can be the site of uncontrolled proliferation, resulting in the formation of thymic tumours including thymomas. Thymomas are classified by the WHO based on histological criteria as type A, B and AB and are frequently associated with Myasthenia Gravis, an autoimmune disease affecting the neuromuscular junction. The biology of thymomas is poorly understood, because of the rarity of the tumours and because of the lack of a reliable in vitro model. We report for the first time, that clonogenic cells can be isolated from all thymoma subtypes as well as from thymic hyperplasia and mediastinal teratoma. The latter cells displayed many similarities with normal TECs but also differences in terms of morphology, gene expression and genetic profile. Importantly, all thymic tumours studied contained refringent-like EpCAM- cells and stratified EpCAM+ cells, supporting the hypothesis that thymic tumour-initiating cells arise from clonogenic TECs. We have not succeeded yet in developing an appropriate assay to support the growth of clonogenic epithelial cells from thymic tumours in vivo. Finally, we report that the SY5 monoclonal antibody raised against human involucrin reproducibly cross-reacts with a molecule present in the Golgi apparatus of refringent cells derived from normal and pathological thymi. Immunocytochemistry and knock-down experiments revealed that the latter molecule is not involucrin. Epitope mapping by phage-display experiments and data base search identified putative candidate proteins, including nesprin-1, a player of the neuromuscular junction, which could be the key to understand the frequent association of thymomas with Myasthenia Gravis.


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