I like reports that make me learn something new and appreciate novel developments leading to more integral view of immunological concepts. My understanding of the thymic central tolerance process was that thymocytes receiving strong signals from tissue antigens through TCR undergo invariably the clonal deletion. But it looks like the clonal deletion of cells that can develop into potentially autoreactive T lymphocytes is not the only way which exists for such population in the thymus. I have read the paper that suggests that there may be actually two outcomes for thymocytes with self-reactive TCR – first is the clonal deletion whereas second the developmental diversion.
What is the developmental diversion, though? According to authors it is a process that happens when a thymocyte gets the signal through its autoreactive TCR but is not able to receive the costimulation with CD28 molecule. In such case it can enter a pool of DN cells (double negative for CD4 and CD8) and turn up in the intestinal epithelium where it re-expresses CD8 (in its αα form). Cells derived from the developmental diversion are anergic and when the clonal deletion is impaired (as for example in CD28 knockout mice) the efficiency of central tolerance is not reduced because autoreactive thymocytes have an substitute pathway that sequesters them from harmful and self-reactive mature population.
How the the developmental diversion was detected? The publication contains a lot of data, so I will focus on most crucial evidence. The initial observation made by investigators was that CD28 knockout mice (and also B7 double knockout with no CD80 and CD86 which are CD28 ligands) has unusually numerous population of DN thymocytes that express TCRαβ. In normal mice DN thymocytes are in their majority TCRαβ-negative. The DN population from mice deleted for CD28 contains also the similar proportion of autoreactive TCRs as pre-selection DP (double positive) thymocytes but mature C4 or CD8 T cells from the same strain are mostly deprived of self-reactive rearrangement. Therefore authors conclude that the clonal deletion of autoreactive thymocytes requires CD28 costimulation and in its absence such cells are diverted into the alternative developmental way.
Investigators follow this phenomenon by studying at what exact stage of thymocyte development the diversion may occur and what happens with diverted thymocytes once they leave the thymus (they end up in the intestinal epithelium as already has been remarked). The most interesting thing, however, is that the developmental diversion seems to take place in normal mice as well as TCRαβ+CD8αα+ intraepithelial lymphocytes from the wild type strain are enriched for autoreactive specificities. I definitely need to start following this story.
Pobezinsky LA, Angelov GS, Tai X, Jeurling S, Van Laethem F, Feigenbaum L, Park JH, & Singer A (2012). Clonal deletion and the fate of autoreactive thymocytes that survive negative selection. Nature immunology, 13 (6), 569-78 PMID: 22544394