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Sonic Hedgehog regulates thymic epithelial cell differentiationSonic Hedgehog (Shh) is expressed in the thymus, where it regulates T cell development. Here we investigated the influence of Shh on thymic epithelial cell (TEC) development. Components of the Hedgehog (Hh) signalling pathway were expressed by TEC, and use of a Gli Binding Site-green fluorescence protein (GFP) transgenic reporter mouse demonstrated active Hh-dependent transcription in TEC in the foetal and adult thymus. Analysis of Shh-deficient foetal thymus organ cultures (FTOC) showed that Shh is required for normal TEC differentiation. Shh-deficient foetal thymus contained fewer TEC than wild type (WT), the proportion of medullary TEC was reduced relative to cortical TEC, and cell surface expression of MHC Class II molecules was increased on both cortical and medullary TEC populations. In contrast, the Gli3-deficient thymus, which shows increased Hh-dependent transcription in thymic stroma, had increased numbers of TEC, but decreased cell surface expression of MHC Class II molecules on both cortical and medullary TEC. Neutralisation of endogenous Hh proteins in WT FTOC led to a reduction in TEC numbers, and in the proportion of mature Aire-expressing medullary TEC, but an increase in cell surface expression of MHC Class II molecules on medullary TEC. Likewise, conditional deletion of Shh from TEC in the adult thymus resulted in alterations in TEC differentiation and consequent changes in T cell development. TEC numbers, and the proportion of mature Aire-expressing medullary TEC were reduced, and cell surface expression of MHC Class II molecules on medullary TEC was increased. Differentiation of mature CD4 and CD8 single positive thymocytes was increased, demonstrating the regulatory role of Shh production by TEC on T cell development. Treatment of human thymus explants with recombinant Shh or neutralising anti-Shh antibody indicated that the Hedgehog pathway is also involved in regulation of differentiation from DP to mature SP T cells in the human thymus.
Tissue-derived hedgehog proteins modulate Th differentiation and diseaseGenome-wide association studies of complex immune-mediated diseases have indicated that many genetic factors, each with individual low risk, contribute to overall disease. It is therefore timely and important to characterize how immune responses may be subtly modified by tissue context. In this article, we explore the role of tissue-derived molecules in influencing the function of T cells, which, owing to their migratory nature, come into contact with many different microenvironments through their lifespan. Hedgehog (Hh) proteins act as secreted morphogens, providing concentration-dependent positional and temporal cell-fate specification in solid tissues. Hh signaling is required for embryogenesis and is important in postnatal tissue renewal and in malignancy. However, the function of Hh in dynamic, fluid systems, such as in mammalian immunity, is largely unknown. In this article, we show that Hh-dependent transcription in T cells promoted Th2 transcriptional programs and differentiation, exacerbating allergic disease. Of interest, expression of Sonic Hh increased in lung epithelial cells following the induction of allergic disease, and lung T cells upregulated Hh target gene expression, indicating that T cells respond to locally secreted Hh ligands in vivo. We show that Il4, the key Th2 cytokine, is a novel transcriptional target of Hh signals in T cells, providing one mechanism for the role of Hh in Th differentiation. We propose that Hh, secreted from inflamed, remodeling, or malignant tissue, can modulate local T cell function. Our data present an unexpected and novel role for tissue-derived morphogens in the regulation of fluid immune responses, with implications for allergy and tumor responses, suggesting new uses for anti-Hh therapeutics.