The cross-talk between thymocytes and thymic stromal cells is fundamental for T cell development. In humans, intrathymic development of dendritic cells (DCs) is evident but its physiological significance is unknown. Here we showed that DC-biased precursors depended on the expression of the transcription factor IRF8 to express the membrane-bound precursor form of the cytokine TNF (tmTNF) to promote differentiation of thymus seeding hematopoietic progenitors into T-lineage specified precursors through activation of the TNF receptor (TNFR)-2 instead of TNFR1. In vitro recapitulation of TNFR2 signaling by providing low-density tmTNF or a selective TNFR2 agonist enhanced the generation of human T cell precursors. Our study shows that, in addition to mediating thymocyte selection and maturation, DCs function as hematopoietic stromal support for the early stages of human T cell development and provide proof of concept that selective targeting of TNFR2 can enhance the in vitro generation of T cell precursors for clinical application.
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