The Journal of experimental medicine

Identification of a thymic epithelial cell subset sharing expression of the class Ib HLA-G molecule with fetal trophoblasts.

PMID 9221758


HLA-G is the only class I determinant of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) expressed by the trophoblasts, the fetal cells invading the maternal decidua during pregnancy. A unique feature of this nonclassical HLA molecule is its low polymorphism, a property that has been postulated to play an important role in preventing local activation of maternal alloreactive T and natural killer cells against the fetus. Yet, the mechanisms by which fetal HLA-G can be recognized as a self-MHC molecule by the maternal immune system remain unclear. Here we report the novel observation that HLA-G is expressed in the human thymus. Expression is targeted to the cell surface of thymic medullary and subcapsular epithelium. Thymic epithelial cell lines were generated and shown to express three alternatively spliced HLA-G transcripts, previously identified in human trophoblasts. Sequencing of HLA-G1 transcripts revealed a few nucleotide changes resulting in amino acid substitutions, all clustered within exon 3 of HLA-G, encoding for the alpha2 domain of the molecule. Our findings raise the possibility that maternal unresponsiveness to HLA-G-expressing fetal tissues may be shaped in the thymus by a previously unrecognized central presentation of this MHC molecule on the medullary epithelium.