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Heterogeneity of epithelial cells in the human thymus

An ultrastructural study


To evaluate interrelationships among epithelial cells, and between morphology and function in the microenvironment, we studied the ultrastructural morphology of epithelial cells in sections of human thymus from donors aged 2 months to 31 years. Six types of epithelial cells were observed: “subcapsular-perivascular” (type 1); “pale” (type 2); “intermediate” (type 3); “dark” (type 4); “undifferentiated” (type 5); and “large-medullary” (type 6). Cells of types 2, 3 and 4 were found throughout the organ. The type-2 to -4 epithelial cells may represent various stages in a differentiation process. In this, type-2 cells are very active and type-4 cells are possibly degenerating elements. Type-4 cells can also contribute to Hassall's corpuscles. Type-5 cells were located mainly in the cortico-medullary region and showed the morphological characteristics of undifferentiated elements. Type-6 cells were located exclusively in the medulla and displayed characteristics of cellular activity. Small Hassall's corpuscles consisted of type-6 epithelial cells; in larger corpuscles many nuclei of type-6 cells were found. Cells of types 2 and 6 contained tubular structures (diameter approximately 20 nm).

Concerning the function of thymus epithelial cells, the features associated with protein synthesis observed in cellular types 2 and 6 make them likely candidates for humoral factor-producing and/or secreting elements. In addition, type-2 and -3 cells in the cortex appear to contribute to a special pattern of epithelium-lymphocyte interaction (“thymic nurse cells”), as demonstrated by the intracytoplasmic location of lymphocytes in the epithelial cells. The various steps in intrathymic T-cell maturation occur at locations in a microenvironment composed of morphologically distinct epithelial cells.

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Correspondence to Henk-Jan Schuurman Ph.D..

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van de Wijngaert, F.P., Kendall, M.D., Schuurman, H. et al. Heterogeneity of epithelial cells in the human thymus. Cell Tissue Res. 237, 227–237 (1984).

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Key words

  • Thymus
  • Epithelial cells
  • Hassall's
  • Man