Recent reports indicate that genes with tissue-restricted expression, including those encoding the type 1 diabetes autoantigens insulin, glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD), and the tyrosine-phosphatase-like protein IA-2 (or ICA512), are transcribed in the thymus. The reported modulation of diabetes susceptibility by genetically determined differences in thymic insulin levels and studies in transgenic mice provide correlative and functional evidence that thymic expression of peripheral proteins is crucial for immunological self-tolerance. However, there are no specific data about the existence, tissue distribution, phenotype, and function of those cells that express insulin and other self-antigens in the human thymus. We find that the human thymus harbors specialized cells synthesizing (pro)insulin, GAD, and IA-2, mainly localized in the medulla, and we demonstrate such cells also in peripheral lymphoid organs (spleen and lymph nodes). Phenotypic analysis qualifies these cells as antigen-presenting cells (APCs), including both dendritic cells and macrophages. These cells often appear surrounded by apoptotic lymphocytes, both in thymus and spleen, and may therefore be involved in the deletion of autoreactive lymphocytes. Our findings demonstrate the existence of, and define the tissue distribution and phenotype of, a novel subset of APCs expressing self-antigens in human lymphoid organs that appear to be involved in the regulation of self-tolerance throughout life.
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