Purified CD3-4- thymocytes were obtained by depletion of CD3+ and CD4+ cells from fresh thymocyte suspensions. 5-15% of these cells were found to express CD16 antigen, while other natural killer (NK) cell markers were virtually absent. Double fluorescence analysis revealed that 20-40% of thymic CD16+ cells coexpressed CD1, while approximately half were cyCD3+. When cultured in the presence of peripheral blood lymphocytes and H9 leukemia cell line as a source of irradiated feeder cells and interleukin 2 (IL-2), CD3-4- thymocytes underwent extensive proliferation. In addition, after 1-2 wk of culture, 30-50% of these cells were found to express CD16 surface antigen. Cloning under limiting dilution conditions of either CD3-4- or CD3-4-16- thymocytes in the presence of irradiated H9 cells resulted in large proportions (approximately 50%) of CD16+ clones. On the basis of the expression of surface CD16 and/or cyCD3 antigen, clones could be grouped in the following subsets: CD16+ cyCD3+; CD16+ cyCD3-; CD16- cyCD3+; and CD16- cyCD3-. All clones expressed CD56 surface antigen, displayed a strong cytolytic activity against NK sensitive (K562) and NK-resistant (M14) target cells, and produced IFN-gamma and tumor necrosis factor, but not IL-2. Similar to peripheral NK cells, thymic CD16+ cells expressed transcripts for CD16 and for CD3 epsilon (Biassoni, R., S. Ferrini, I. Prigione, A. Moretta, and E.O. Long, 1988. J. Immunol. 140:1685.) and zeta chains (Anderson, P., M. Caligiuri, J. Ritz, and S.F. Schlossman. 1989. Nature [Lond.]. 341:159). Therefore, it appears that cells that are phenotypically and functionally similar to CD3- CD16+ NK cells may arise from immature thymocytes.
Highly purified CD1-3-4-8- human thymocytes were obtained by panning techniques combined with cell depletion with antibody-coated magnetic beads. Most of these cells expressed cytoplasmic CD3 antigen, as assessed by mAbs known to react with the CD3 epsilon chain. After culture with low doses of PMA (0.5 ng/ml) and subsequent addition (at 24 h) of recombinant interleukin 2 (rIL-2; 100 U/ml) cells underwent extensive proliferation (40-60-fold of the initial cell input after 2 wk). The majority of the proliferating cells were CD3-TCR-. The remaining cells (5-40%) were represented by CD3+ TCR gamma/delta+ (BB3- A13+) cells. Further removal of CD3+ TCR-gamma/delta+ cells resulted in highly purified CD3- populations that further proliferated in culture with no substantial phenotypic changes. When CD3+ thymocytes were cultured under the same experimental conditions, only CD3+ TCR-alpha/beta+ cells could be detected, thus indicating that PMA did not affect the surface expression of the CD3/TCR complex, but rather induced preferential growth of CD3- thymocytes. Surface marker analysis of cultured CD3- thymocytes showed that they were homogeneously CD7+, whereas low proportions of cells expressed CD2 and CD8 antigens. Among the natural killer (NK) cell markers, CD56 was highly expressed by all cells, whereas CD16, CD57, CD11b, NKH2, and GL183 were absent. Importantly, these cells were different from peripheral NK cells, as 80-95% of them expressed cytoplasmic CD3 antigen. Functional analysis revealed a strong cytolytic activity against both NK-sensitive (K562) and NK-resistant (M14, Daudi) human target cells. In a redirected killing assay against the Fc gamma R+ P815 cells, mAbs specific for triggering molecules including CD3, CD2, and CD16 failed to augment target cell lysis, while a strong cytolytic effect was induced by PHA. In addition, PHA alone or in combination with PMA induced tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha) and interferon gamma (IFN-gamma) (but not IL-2) production by CD3- thymocytes. Cloning of fresh CD1-3-4-8-thymocytes in the presence of PMA and rIL-2 resulted in CD3-CD56+ clones that displayed a pattern of cytolytic activity and lymphokine production similar to that of the polyclonal populations. Northern blot analysis of transcripts coding for CD3/TCR molecules revealed the presence of CD3 zeta, epsilon, and gamma transcripts, while CD3 delta was undetectable. Mature transcripts for both gamma and delta TCR chains could be detected, whereas no TCR-alpha mRNA and only a truncated (1.0 kb) form of TCR-beta mRNA were revealed.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)