Immature CD4+CD8+ Thymocytes Are Preferentially Infected by Measles Virus in Human Thymic Organ Cultures
Measles virus infection induces a profound immunosuppression that may lead to serious secondary infections and mortality. In this report, we show that the human cortical thymic epithelial cell line is highly susceptible to measles virus infection in vitro, resulting in infectious viral particle production and syncytium formation. Measles virus inhibits thymic epithelial cell growth and induces an arrest in the G0/G1 phases of the cell cycle. Moreover, we show that measles virus induces a progressive thymic epithelial cell differentiation process: attached measles virus-infected epithelial cells correspond to an intermediate state of differentiation while floating cells, recovered from cell culture supernatants, are fully differentiated. Measles virus-induced thymic epithelial cell differentiation is characterized by morphological and phenotypic changes. Measles virus-infected attached cells present fusiform and stellate shapes followed by a loss of cell-cell contacts and a shift from low- to high-molecular-weight keratin expression. Measles virus infection induces thymic epithelial cell apoptosis in terminally differentiated cells, revealed by the condensation and degradation of DNA in measles virus-infected floating thymic epithelial cells. Because thymic epithelial cells are required for the generation of immunocompetent T lymphocytes, our results suggest that measles virus-induced terminal differentiation of thymic epithelial cells may contribute to immunosuppression, particularly in children, in whom the thymic microenvironment is of critical importance for the development and maturation of a functional immune system.