Endogenous thymic regeneration is a crucial function that allows for renewal of immune competence following immunodepletion caused by common cancer therapies such as cytoreductive chemotherapy or radiation; however, the mechanisms governing this regeneration remain poorly understood. Moreover, despite this capacity, prolonged T cell deficiency is a major clinical hurdle in recipients of hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) and can precipitate high morbidity and mortality from opportunistic infections, and may even facilitate malignant relapse. We have recently described a central role for group 3 innate lymphoid cells (ILC) in a complex cellular and molecular network that drives endogenous thymic regeneration (Dudakov 2012 Science 336:91). Although IL-22 contributes considerably towards thymic regeneration and mice deficient for IL-22 lag behind WT controls in their recovery of thymic function, there is still some tissue regeneration in these mice, suggesting that other regeneration pathways also contribute to thymic repair. Unbiased transcriptome analysis on the damage-resistant non-hematopoietic compartemtn of the thymus revealed significant upregulation of Bmp4 and its downstream signalling targets (Fig. 1a). Further interrogation revealed that while thymic expression of BMP4 was restricted to fibroblasts and endothelial cells (ECs), only ECs increase their expression of Bmp4 after damage; and specific and inducible deletion of BMP4 in ECs led to significantly worse regeneration (Fig. 1b).
Thymopoiesis is dependent on the close interaction between developing thymocytes and the non-hematopoietic stromal microenvironment, which includes highly specialized thymic epithelial cells (TECs) and ECs. While the role of TECs has been well studied, the contribution of ECs to thymopoiesis and thymic regeneration has thus far remained largely unclear. Careful interrogation of ECs after damage revealed that, much like ILCs, ECs are extremely resistant to multiple clinically relevant models of acute tissue injury including corticosteroids, chemotherapy and TBI. However, whole organ imaging analysis using light sheet field microscopy suggested that even though the number of ECs remain unchanged after damage, there is considerable structural changes to the vasculature including shortening of the vessels and reduced branching. Although BMP4 receptors are widely expressed in the thymus, there was enriched expression for BMP4 receptor subunits on TECs, which is consistent with the role of BMP4 in thymus ontogeny by promoting TEC development, at least partially due to its ability to induce expression of Foxn1 (Fig. 1c), a key transcription factor for the development and maintenance of TECs. Consistent with these findings, after thymic damage we observed a significant increase in the expression of Foxn1 after damage as well as GSEA enrichment for downstream FOXN1 target genes (Fig. 1d); including Dll4, the Notch ligand critical for T cell development and whose concentration we have previously shown can directly regulate thymic size (Velardi 2014 J Exp Med 211:2341). Finally, using a technique whereby ECs are transduced with the adenoviral gene E4ORF1 - ECs could be expanded ex vivo (exEC) and, when administered to mice after SL-TBI, significantly boost recovery of thymic function; but only when the exEC were derived from the thymus but not from heart or kidney (Fig. 1e). Consistent with endogenous regeneration, in vivo administration of exEC(Thy) induced the expression by TECs of Foxn1 and Dll4 .
Here we demonstrate that rather than just being passive conduits that deliver oxygen and nutrients, ECs are active participants in organ function producing distinct paracrine factors that orchestrate thymic renewal. These studies thus not only detail a novel pathway promoting endogenous thymic regeneration, but also offer an innovative clinical approach to enhance T cell immunity in recipients of allo-HSCT and for individuals with T cell deficiencies due to aging, infectious disease, and common cancer treatments such as chemo- and radiation-therapy.
van den Brink: PureTech Health: Consultancy; Therakos Institute: Other: Speaking engagement; Seres: Research Funding; Jazz Pharmaceuticals: Consultancy.
Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.