T lymphocyte mitosis results from the interaction of interleukin 2 (IL-2) with specific receptors that appear only after appropriate immune stimulation. To assess the potential role of IL-2 receptor levels in determining the rate and magnitude of T cell proliferation, the expression of IL-2 receptors by lectin-stimulated human peripheral blood T cells was examined and correlated with T cell growth. Using biosynthetically radiolabeled IL-2 and anti-Tac, a monoclonal antibody that blocks IL-2 receptor binding, IL-2 receptors were found to accumulate slowly and asynchronously among lectin-stimulated T cells and to precede the onset of DNA synthesis. Moreover, a critical threshold of IL-2 receptor density appeared to be required before the commitment to cell cycle progression, as analyzed quantitatively by tritiated thymidine incorporation and flow cytometric analysis of cellular DNA content. Once maximal IL-2 receptor expression occurred, continued proliferation was IL-2 concentration dependent as assessed using homogenous immunoaffinity-purified IL-2. Upon removal of the activating lectin, IL-2 receptor levels progressively declined, and, in parallel, the rate of proliferation diminished. The decay of IL-2 receptors could not be attributed to IL-2-mediated down-regulation. Instead, renewed IL-2 receptor expression was dependent upon the reintroduction of the initial activating signal. Repetitive exposure to lectin resulted in a more rapid reexpression of maximal IL-2 receptor levels, which was then followed by an accelerated resumption of proliferation. Thus, the extent of T cell proliferation after immune stimulation depends upon the interplay of the IL-2 concentration available and the density of IL-2 receptors expressed, both of which are ultimately determined by antigen/lectin stimulation. The awareness of the transience and the antigen/lectin dependence of IL-2 receptor expression, together with the capacity to monitor T cell cultures for IL-2 receptor levels, should facilitate the initiation and maintenance of cloned, antigen-specific T cells in long-term culture. In addition, these findings suggest that, in vivo, the rapidity of acquisition of maximum IL-2 receptor levels by activated T cells and the duration of IL-2 receptor expression may well direct the magnitude of T cell clonal expansion and resultant immune responses.

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