Rabbits thymectomized in early adulthood produced more antihapten antibody than sham-thymectomized controls after hyperimmunization with 2,4-dinitrophenyl bovine gamma globulin (DNP-BGG). The average associated constant of anti-DNP antibody produced by thymectomized animals was more than 10 times higher than that of the controls. Similar effects were obtained by extensive treatment of rabbits with antithymocyte serum (ATS) before and during the immunization with DNP-BGG. The results indicated that relative diminution of thymus-derived lymphocytes (T cells) resulted in a stimulation of antibody-forming cells with a higher affinity.
On the other hand, preimmunization of rabbits with different doses of BGG caused either enhancement or suppression of the hapten-specific antibody response, depending on the priming dose of BGG. The suppressed antibody response was always associated with a marked decrease in the antibody affinity. If rabbits were partially tolerized with a large dose of soluble BGG, some of the animals produced little antibody against hapten (DNP) coupled to this carrier, and the affinity of produced antibody was low. However, other rabbits tolerized with BGG produced large amounts of anti-DNP antibody upon hyperimmunization with DNP-BGG, whose affinity was only slightly lower than that of the control.
These results can be harmonized if it is assumed that the thymus plays an important role in the maturation of the immune response. It is postulated that T cells, in numbers ordinarily available, would first assist in the proliferation of antihapten antibody-forming cell precursors already selected by antigen, thus accounting for the rapid increase of antibody affinity in the early stage of immunization. However, after a larger number of carrier-specific T cells are made in response to continued immunization, these would suppress antibody-forming cells. The suppression would be greater for cells with higher affinity for antigen, resulting in a decrease in antibody affinity. This postulate explains preferential stimulation and suppression of cells having higher affinity receptors under circumstances in which T cell are relatively depleted or overstimulated, and further permits an explanation for the decrease of antibody affinity after long-term immunization.