The behavior of Langerhans cells (LC) has been examined after skin transplantation and in an organ culture system. Within 24 h (and even within 4 h of culture), LC in epidermal sheets from allografts, isografts, and explants dramatically increased in size and expression of major histocompatibility complex class II molecules, and their numbers were markedly decreased. Using a new procedure, dermal sheets were then examined. By 24 h, cells resembling LC were found close to the epidermal-dermal junction, and by 3 d, they formed cords in dermal lymphatics before leaving the skin. In organ culture, the cells continued to migrate spontaneously into the medium. These observations establish a direct route for migration of LC from the epidermis into the dermis and then out of the skin. These processes are apparently induced by a local inflammatory response, and are independent of host-derived mediators. The phenotype of migratory cells was then examined by two-color immunocytochemistry and FACS analysis. The majority of migratory leukocytes were Ia+ LC, the remainder comprised Thy-1+, CD3+, CD4-, CD8- presumptive T cell receptor gamma/delta+ dendritic epidermal cells, which clustered with the LC, and a small population of adherent Ia-, FcRII+, CD11a/18+ macrophages. In contrast to the cells remaining within the epidermis of grafted skin at 1 d, the migratory cells were heterogeneous in phenotype, particularly with respect to F4/80, FcRII, and interleukin 2 receptor alpha expression, which are useful markers to follow phenotypic maturation of LC. Moreover, cells isolated from the epidermis of grafts at 1 d were more immunostimulatory in the allogeneic mixed leukocyte reaction and oxidative mitogenesis than LC isolated from normal skin, though less potent than spleen cells. The day 1 migratory cells were considerably more immunostimulatory than spleen cells, and day 3-5 migratory cells even more so, suggesting that functional maturation continues in culture. Thus, maturation of LC commences in the epidermis and continues during migration, but the cells do not need to be fully mature in phenotype or function before they leave the skin. In vivo, the migration of epidermal LC via the dermis into lymphatics and then to the draining nodes, where they have been shown previously to home to T areas, would provide a powerful stimulus for graft rejection.

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