Inside the thymus, thymic epithelial cells and thymocytes show an interdependent relationship for their functional differentiation and development. As regards possible interdependency for their mutual survival, it is clear that lympho-epithelial adhesion can control the survival of developing thymocytes whereas the effects of lymphoid adhesion on epithelial cell survival have never been described. To address this issue, we performed co-cultures between normal human thymic epithelial cells (TEC) and a mature lymphoid T cell line (H9) or unfractionated thymocgtes. TEC were induced to apoptosis by growth factor deprivation and the level of cell death was measured by flow cytometry. TEC stimulated by cell adhesion showed a significant reduced apoptosis when compared to the control and this phenomenon was associated with increased binding activity of NF-κB, as measured by gel shift analysis. The activation of NF-κB was necessary to promote survival, since its inhibition by acetyl salicylic acid prevented the promoting effect. The mAb-mediated crosslinking of α3β1 was considered as a potential inducer of TEC survival, since we have previously demonstrated that the engagement of this integrin was able to induce NF-κB activation in TEC. The crosslinking of α3β1, which clustered at the lympho-epithelial contact sites, partially reproduced the promoting activity of cell adhesion. These results highlight that lympho-epithelial adhesion can control the survival of thymic epithelial cells through an intracellular pathway which requires the activation of NF-κB and is triggered by integrins of the β1 family.
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