Recent advances in tissue culture technology and molecular biology have extended our understanding of the functional morphology of the thymus. The importance of a crosstalk between lymphoid cells and stroma has been appreciated as a prerequisite for the normal development of both. The network of direct cellular interactions and soluble factors comprising part of the microenvironment is far from being elucidated but the highly ordered thymic architecture clearly plays a pivotal role in normal thymic function. Insight into the genetic control of stroma development is only emerging while knowledge on the genetic control of the various steps in T cell development is already advanced and rapidly expanding.
The present paper gives an overview on the cellular components and matrix molecules of the human thymic microenvironment and their development during ontogeny. The intrathymic cytokine network is shortly reviewed. Special emphasis is put on molecules mediating lymphoepithelial interactions that are necessary for the expansion and early selection of immature thymocytes from precursor cells and for the generation of an MHC restricted and self tolerant T cell repertoire by positive and negative selection. Considering these physiological mechanisms we summarize the molecular pathology of the microenvironment and lymphocyte/stroma interactions in thymic epithelial tumors (thymomas). Finally, a pathogenetic model for paraneoplastic myasthenia gravis is given. We suggest abnormal autoantigen-specific positive selection of naive T cells as the essential molecular mechanism by which thymomas contribute to the autoimmunization against the acetylcholine receptor and other muscle proteins.
International Society of Histology and Cytology