Five patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), who were treated by lymphocyte depletion by using thoracic duct drainage (TDD), provided an opportunity to characterize the phenotype and function of their recirculating lymphocytes. We found that: a) thoracic duct lymphocytes (TDL) were similar in their proportion of T cells (83% +/- 6 OKT3+), OKT4+ subset (65% +/- 8), and OKT8+ subset (22% +/- 6) to peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL): b) fewer natural killer-like cells were present in TDL (5% +/- 4 Leu-7+; 2% +/- 2 Leu-11+: 8% +/- 2 OKM -1+) than in PBL (20% +/- 10 Leu-7+: 11% +/- 6 Leu-11+; 18% +/- 5 OKM -1) (p less than 0.01); c) TDL differed from synovial fluid lymphocytes ( SFL ) and synovial membrane lymphocytes ( SML ) in that TDL lacked a high percentage of activated lymphocytes (T cells bearing Ia antigen, OKT10 , and transferrin receptor): d) immature T cells (expressing either OKT6 antigen or reactive with peanut agglutinin) were not found in TDL even late in the course of TDD: and e) in vitro functional studies demonstrated that TDL were similar to PBL in their ability to synthesize immunoglobulin after mitogen stimulation and to generate cytotoxic T lymphocytes capable of lysing autologous EBV-transformed B cells. However, natural killer activity, as measured by lysis of K562 cells was significantly lower in TDL than PBL (p less than 0.05). These results demonstrate that natural killer cells defined by phenotype and function are excluded from thoracic duct lymph and thus have a circulation pattern different from most T cells.
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