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Immunohistochemical characterization of the thymic microenvironment

A light-microscopic and ultrastructural immunocytochemical study

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The epithelial framework of the human thymus has been studied in parallel by immunohistochemical methods at the light- and electron-microscopic levels. Different monoclonal antibodies were used, reacting with components of the major histocompatibility complex, keratins, thymic hormones and other as yet antigenically undefined substances, which show specific immunoreactivities with human thymus epithelial cells.

The electron-microscopic immunocytochemical observations clearly confirm microtopographical differences of epithelial cells not only between the thymic cortex and medulla, but also within the cortex itself. At least four subtypes of epithelial cells could be distinguished: 1) the cortical surface epithelium; 2) the main cortical epithelial cells and thymic nurse cells; 3) the medullary epithelial cells; and 4) the epithelial cells of Hassall's corpuscles.

The various epithelial cell types of the thymus display several common features like tonofilaments, desmosomes and some surface antigens as demonstrated by anti-KiM3. In other respects, however, they differ from each other. The cortical subtype of thymic epithelial cells including the thymic nurse cells shows a distinct pattern of surface antigens reacting positively with antibodies against HLA-DR (anti-HLA-DR) and anti-21A62E. Electron-microscopic immunocytochemistry with these antibodies clearly reveals a surface labeling and a narrow contact to cortical thymocytes particularly in the peripheral cortical regions. An alternative staining pattern is realized by antibodies to some antigens associated with other subtypes of thymic epithelial cells. Medullary epithelial cells as well as the cortical surface epithelium react likewise positively with antibodies to special surface antigens (anti-Ep-1), to special epitopes of cytokeratin (anti-IV/82), and to thymic hormones (anti-FTS). The functional significance of distinct microenvironments within the thymus provided by different epithelial cells is discussed in view of the maturation of T-precursor cells.

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Anti-X :

anti-X antibody

APUD-cells :

amine precursor uptake and decarboxylation (gastro-intestinal endocrine cells)




dimethyl sulfoxide


facteur thymique sérique

HLA-A, B, C :

human leucocyte antigen, A, B, C-region related


human leucocyte antigen, D-region related


interdigitating cell


major histocompatibility gene complex


phosphate-buffered saline


thymic nurse cell


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Author information

Correspondence to Priv.-Doz. Dr. Brita von Gaudecker.

Additional information

This investigation was supported by grants from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, and its Sonderforschungsbereich 111

Fellow of the Alexander von Humbold-Stiftung, Institute of Pathology, University of Würzburg, Federal Republic of Germany

The authors appreciate the contribution of human thymus tissue from Professor Alexander Bernhard, Abteilung kardiovasculäre Chirurgie der Universität Kiel; the gift of monoclonal antibodies from Dr. M.J.D. Anderson, Dr. M. Dardenne and Dr. H.J. Radzun; and the excellent technical assistence of Mrs. O.M. Bracker, Mrs. H. Hansen, Mrs. R. Köpke, Mrs. M. v. Kolszynski, Mrs. J. Quitzau, Mrs. H. Siebke, and Mrs. H. Waluk

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von Gaudecker, B., Steinmann, G.G., Hansmann, M.L. et al. Immunohistochemical characterization of the thymic microenvironment. Cell Tissue Res. 244, 403–412 (1986).

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Key words

  • Thymus, man
  • Epithelial cell subpopulations
  • Microenvironment
  • Thymic hormones
  • Immunoperoxidase technique, ultrastructural