24 February 2020

The first cell atlas of the human thymus has been produced, providing opportunities for new immune for cancer and autoimmune diseases, researchers announced last week.

The open source cell atlas has also revealed new cell types and identified signals that tell immature immune cells how to develop into T cells, which could help scientists to understand diseases that affect T cell development.

Researchers used single cell technology to isolate and analyse about 200,000 individual cells from the developing thymus, and child and adult thymus tissue.

They examined which genes were active in each individual cell to identify the cells, discovering new types to use them as tags to map each cell to its exact location in the thymus.

The findings of the team, from Wellcome Sanger Institute, Newcastle University and Ghent University in Belgium, are published in the latest edition of Science.

Professor Muzlifah Haniffa, a senior study author from Newcastle University and senior clinical fellow at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “With this thymus cell atlas, we are unravelling the cellular signals of the developing thymus, and revealing which genes need to be switched on to convert early immune precursor cells into specific T cells.

“This is really exciting as in the future, this atlas could be used as a reference map to engineer T cells outside the body with exactly the right properties to attack and kill a specific cancer - creating tailored treatments for tumours.”

Professor Tom Taghon, a senior study author from Ghent University added: “We now have a very detailed understanding of how T cells form in healthy tissue. We have been able to identify a similar population of precursor cells in the developing thymus and liver, and we believe that these precursors are important for initiating T cell development in the foetus, and for the establishment of a fully competent thymus organ. This is helping us put jigsaw pieces together to get a bigger picture of how immunity develops.”

Source: Park J-E, Botting RA, Conde CD, Popescu D-M, Lavaert M, Kunz DJ, Goh I, Stephenson E, Ragazzini R, Tuck E, Wilbrey-Clark A, Roberts K, Kedlian VR, Ferdinand JR, He X, Webb S, Maunder D, Vandamme N, Mahbubani KT, Polanski K, Mamanova L, Bolt L, Crossland D, de Rita F, Fuller A, Filby A, Reynolds G, Dixon D, Saeb-Parsy K, Lisgo S, Henderson D, Vento-Tormo R, Bayraktar OA, Barker RA, Meyer KB, Saeys Y, Bonfanti P, Behjati S, Clatworthy MR, Taghon T, Haniffa M, Teichmann SA (2020) “A cell atlas of human thymic development defines T cell repertoire formation”, Science,
doi: 10.1126/science.aay3224


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