A number of previous studies have suggested a key role for interleukin 7 (IL-7) in the maturation of T lymphocytes. To better assess the function of IL-7 in lymphopoiesis, we have deprived mice of IL-7 in vivo by long-term administration of a neutralizing anti-IL-7 antibody. In a previous report (Grabstein, K. H., T. J. Waldschmidt, F. D. Finkelman, B. W. Hess, A. R. Alpert, N. E. Boiani, A. E. Namen, and P. J. Morrissey. 1993. J. Exp. Med. 178:257-264), we used this system to demonstrate the critical role of IL-7 in B cell maturation. After a brief period of anti-IL-7 treatment, most of the pro-B cells and all of the pre-B and immature B cells were depleted from the bone marrow. In the present report, we have injected anti-IL-7 antibody for periods of up to 12 wk to determine the effect of in vivo IL-7 deprivation on the thymus. The results demonstrate a > 99% reduction in thymic cellularity after extended periods of antibody administration. Examination of thymic CD4- and CD8- defined subsets revealed that, on a proportional basis, the CD4+, CD8+ subset was most depleted, the CD4 and CD8 single positive cells remained essentially unchanged, and the CD4-, CD8- compartment actually increased to approximately 50% of the thymus. Further examination of the double negative thymocytes demonstrated that IL-7 deprivation did, indeed, deplete the CD3-, CD4-, CD8- precursors, with expansion of this subset being interupted at the CD44+, CD25+ stage. The proportional increase in the CD4-, CD8- compartment was found to be due to an accumulation of CD3+, T cell receptor alpha, beta + double negative T cells. Additional analysis revealed that anti-IL-7 treatment suppressed the audition/selection process of T cells, as shown by a significant reduction of single positive cells expressing CD69 and heat stable antigen. Finally, the effects of IL-7 deprivation on the thymus were found to be reversible, with a normal pattern of thymic subsets returning 4 wk after cessation of treatment. The present results thus indicate a central role for IL-7 in the maturation of thymic-derived T cells.

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