The epidermis of clinically normal-appearing human skin harbors a phenotypically heterogeneous population of T lymphocytes (TCs), the majority of which are CD2+/CD3+/CD5+ "memory" cells, but in an unactivated state, and express the TCR-alpha/beta. In contrast to murine skin, only a very minor subpopulation of CD3+ cells in the human epidermis bears the TCR-gamma/delta. Epidermal TCs primarily are distributed along the rete ridges in the basal keratinocyte layer and are often in close apposition to Langerhans cells (LCs). These TCs were propagated from epidermal cell suspensions after stimulation with TC activating agents (Con A, rIL-1, rIL-2), then evaluated for phenotypic features and TCR diversity. Similar to the in situ situation, most were CD4-/CD8+/TCR-alpha/beta+. In addition, two cultures contained TCR-gamma/delta+ cells; one of these determined to be an adherent CD4-/CD8+ population. Epidermal TCs were significantly (p less than 0.0001) more abundant in the sole than in the other body regions examined (i.e., 40 vs. 7 CD3+ cells/linear centimeter of epidermis) and seemed to have a particular affinity for the acrosyringial epithelium of eccrine sweat ducts. Moreover, the sole usually contained a greater number of CD8+ relative to CD4+ TCs, whereas the epidermal CD4/CD8 ratio in the trunk and extremities was quite variable, although the trend also was towards a slightly larger percentage of CD8+ cells. Collectively, our data suggest that the volar epidermis has a unique microenvironment which is responsible for both the higher density of TCs, preferentially CD8+, and lower number of LCs. This study has not only provided evidence for significant regional variability in the human epidermal TC population of normal skin, but also strengthens the concept for skin-associated lymphoid tissues (SALT), whereby memory TCs recirculate back to the epidermis and interact with resident antigen-presenting cells (i.e., LC).

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