Positive selection of developing thymocytes is associated with changes in cell function, at least in part caused by alterations in expression of cell surface proteins. Surprisingly, however, few such proteins have been identified. We have analyzed the pattern of gene expression during the early stages of murine thymocyte differentiation. These studies led to identification of a cell surface protein that is a useful marker of positive selection and is a likely regulator of mature lymphocyte and APC function. The protein is a member of the Ig superfamily and contains conserved tyrosine-based signaling motifs. The gene encoding this protein was independently isolated recently and termed B and T lymphocyte attenuator (Btla). We describe in this study anti-BTLA mAbs that demonstrate that the protein is expressed in the bone marrow and thymus on developing B and T cells, respectively. BTLA is also expressed by all mature lymphocytes, splenic macrophages, and mature, but not immature bone marrow-derived dendritic cells. Although mice deficient in BTLA do not show lymphocyte developmental defects, T cells from these animals are hyperresponsive to anti-CD3 Ab stimulation. Conversely, anti-BTLA Ab can inhibit T cell activation. These results implicate BTLA as a negative regulator of the activation and/or function of various hemopoietic cell types.
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