Although the proto-oncogene rhombotin-2 (RBTN-2) is widely expressed in most tissues, it is not expressed in T cells. We investigated the potential for overexpression of RBTN-2 to cause tumors in T cells and other tissues by constructing transgenic mice that expressed RBTN-2 under control of the metallothionein-1 promoter. Despite overexpression of RBTN-2 in all tissues, transgenic mice developed T-cell tumors only, thus indicating that tumorigenesis caused by RBTN-2 is T-cell-specific. Thymic tumors were found between 37 and 71 weeks and were invariably associated with metastasis to nonlymphoid organs. Thymuses from apparently healthy transgenic mice were also examined. In some mice there was an 10-fold increase in the CD4-CD8- thymocyte subset, yet the total number of thymocytes was the same as that in wild-type mice. Thymic homeostasis was maintained by a compensatory reduction in the CD4+CD8+ subset. The expansion of CD4-CD8- thymocytes was associated with increased expression of RBTN-2 and with increased cell proliferation. No differences were found in the proportion of thymocytes undergoing apoptosis in transgenic mice. Furthermore, RBTN-2-induced expansion of CD4-CD8- cells did not block differentiation of these cells. Thymuses with 30% CD4-CD8- cells were essentially monoclonal, indicating that all thymic immunophenotypes were derived from a single clone. Overall, our data are consistent with the following scenario: (1) RBTN-2 expression in T cells causes selective and polyclonal proliferation of CD4-CD8-thymocytes accompanied by a compensatory decrease in other thymocyte subsets; (2) a clone with growth advantage and differentiation potential is selected and populates the thymus; and (3) this clone eventually breaches homeostasis of the thymus, accompanied or followed by metastasis to other organs.

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