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Gene Expression Alterations in Immune System Pathways in the Thymus Following Exposure to Immunosuppressive Chemicals

Rachel Frawley, Kimber White, Jr., Ronnetta Brown, Deborah Musgrove, Nigel Walker, Dori Germolec
Environmental Health Perspectives (2011) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1002358 PMID: 21041162
DOI: https://doi.org/10.22427/NTP-DATA-002-00086-0001-0000-6



Dysregulation of positive and negative selection, antigen presentation, or apoptosis in the thymus can lead to immunosuppression or autoimmunity. Diethylstilbestrol (DES), dexamethasone (DEX), cyclophosphamide (CPS), and 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD) are immunosuppressive chemicals that induce similar immunotoxic effects in the thymus, however, the mechanism of toxicity is purported to be different for each compound.

We hypothesized that genomic analysis of thymus after chemical-induced atrophy would yield transcriptional profiles that suggest pathways of toxicity associated with reduced function.

Methods Female B6C3F1 mice were exposed to these immunosuppressive agents and changes in gene expression and immune cell subpopulations were evaluated.

Results All four chemicals induced thymic atrophy and changes in both the relative proportion and absolute number of CD3+, CD4+/CD8−, CD4−/CD8+, and CD4+/CD8+ thymocytes. The most significant impact of exposure to DEX, DES, and CPS was modulation of gene expression in the T-cell receptor (TCR) complex and TCR and CD28 signaling pathways; this could represent a common mechanism of action and play a pivotal role in lineage commitment and development of T cells. Up-regulation of genes associated with the antigen presentation and dendritic cell maturation pathways was the most distinctive effect of TCDD exposure. These elements, which were also up-regulated by DEX and DES, contribute to positive and negative selection.

Conclusions Genomic analysis revealed gene expression changes in several pathways that are commonly associated with xenobiotic-induced immune system perturbations, particularly those that contribute to the development and maturation of thymic T cells.

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