T cell precursors homed to thymus develop in close contact with stromal cells. Among them, thymic epithelial cells (TEC) are known to exert dominant roles in their survival and functional shaping. Key molecules mediating TEC/thymocytes interactions include cytokines and growth factors secreted by the two cell types and adhesion receptors mediating cell contact. Signaling events triggered in thymocytes by adhesion to epithelial cells have been extensively investigated, whereas little is known on the opposite phenomenon. We have previously investigated this issue in a co-culture system composed of TEC cultures derived from human normal thymus and heterologous thymocytes. We demonstrated that thymocytes adhere to TEC involving β1 and β4 integrins and induce the clustering of α3β1 and α6β4 heterodimers at the TEC surface. In addition thymocyte adhesion was followed by activation of NF-κB and NF-IL6 gene transciption factors and enhanced IL-6 production. The two latter phenomena were reproduced by the cross-linking of the α3, α6, β1 and β4 integrins, thus implying that the α3β1 and α6β4 heterodimers can signal during thymocyte adhesion. We have extended our previous work investigating in the same experimental setting the inducing activity of non stimulated or activated policlonal or clonal mature T cells as representative of the more mature thymocyte subset. We found that adhesion of unstimulated T cell i) involved β1, but not β4 integrin functions at the surface ii) induced the clustering of α3β1, but not α2β1 heterodimers at the TEC surface and iii) up-regulated the nuclear binding activity of NF-κB transcription factor and the IL-6 secretion. We propose that α3β1 and α6β4 heterodimers are induced to cluster at the TEC surface recognizing yet unknown cellular ligands differentially expressed during T cell development.
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