Thymopoiesis is a highly complex process involving cross-talk interactions between developing thymocytes and the supporting non-hematopoietic stromal microenvironment, which includes highly specialized thymic epithelial cells (TECs). Paradoxical to its importance for continually generating a diverse repertoire for effective adaptive immunity, the thymus undergoes profound atrophy with age. Age-related thymic involution is characterized by severe structural dysregulation of the supporting epithelial microenvironment (and in humans linked to a buildup of fatty tissue), reduced thymopoiesis, and subsequently reduced export of na•ve lymphocytes into the periphery. Together this degeneration in thymic function significantly narrows the T cell receptor repertoire and can causally linked to increased infection, autoimmunity and malignancy. Moreover, progressive thymic involution can also be a considerable hindrance to the regeneration of adaptive immunity following cytoreductive treatments such as chemotherapy or the conditioning required for successful hematopoietic stem cell transplant. Despite considerable work, little is understood about the underlying causes of age-related thymic involution.
We have recently demonstrated a novel role for interleukin-22 (IL-22), a recently identified cytokine predominantly associated with maintenance of barrier function at mucosal surfaces, in endogenous thymic regeneration from acute immune injury. Our studies suggested that 1) the depletion of DP thymocytes triggers, 2) upregulation of IL-23 by dendritic cells (DCs), which induces 3) the production of IL-22 by intrathymic innate lymphoid cells (ILCs). IL-22 promotes the proliferation and survival of TECs, therefore this cascade of events leads to regeneration of the supporting microenvironment and, ultimately, to rejuvenation of thymopoiesis. Given these recent findings demonstrating a role for IL-22 in endogenous thymic regeneration following acute immune injury, one hypothesis would be that a breakdown in the IL-22 pathway contributes towards chronic age-related thymus involution. However, in contrast to this initial hypothesis, our studies revealed that rather than being depleted with age, there was actually a significant increase in the level of intrathymic IL-22 in aged (18+ months old) compared to young (2 months old) mice (Figure 1a). These findings highlighted that, in addition to being triggered by the depletion of CD4+CD8+ double positive thymocytes during acute immune injury, the IL-22 regenerative pathway can also be activated by the chronic atrophy that is a hallmark of age-related thymic involution. Similar to our findings in models of thymic injury in young mice, we found that these increased levels of IL-22 with age were predicated on the increased production of IL-22 by thymic innate lymphoid cells (Figure 1b). Moreover, in keeping with our findings in young mice with acute thymic injury, intrathymic levels of IL-22 in aged mice correlated with those of IL-23 - production of which by dendritic cells was significantly increased with age (Figure 1c). As predicted by this increase in the production of IL-22 with age, TECs from aged mice displayed all the hallmarks of increased IL-22 signaling including increased expression of the IL-22 receptor (Figure 1d) as well as increased phosphorylation of STAT-3 (Y705) (Figure 1e). However, although in vitro incubation of aged TECs with IL-22 led to increased proliferation, consistent with our findings in young mice, in vivo analysis revealed significantly reduced proliferation among TECs in aged mice (Figure 1f), as has been previously reported.
Given the role for inflammasome components in mediating thymic involution, it is possible that although endogenous regenerative pathways are triggered with age (in the case of IL-22 likely due to the depletion of DP thymocytes), these regular processes fail in the face of an overwhelming inflammatory milieu in the thymus with age. Although further studies need to elucidate the specific inhibitory interactions constraining thymic regeneration, it is clear that strategies harnessing these endogenous pathways for enhancing immunity in the aging thymus first need to overcome these negative stimuli for effective regeneration.
No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.
Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.