Zinc, T-cell pathways, aging: Role of metallothioneins

Eugenio Mocchegiani, Mario Muzzioli, Catia Cipriano, Robertina Giacconi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Zinc is an essential trace element for many biological functions, including immune functions. Indeed zinc is required for the biological activity of a thymic hormone, called thymulin in its zinc-bound form, important for the maturation and differentiation of T-cells. With advancing age zinc, thymic functions and peripheral immune efficiency show a progressive decline. Supplementing zinc in old age restores them. Zinc is also relevant for liver extrathymic T-cell pathway, being preeminent in old age. Since zinc is also required for metallothioneins (MTs) biological functions, binding zinc with high affinity, aim of the present article is to summarize findings from our laboratory regarding the role of zinc on T-cell pathways, investigating also the possible cause of thymic involution and impaired liver extrathymic T-cell pathway in aging. Partial hepatectomy and liver regeneration are good models for this aim because of the likeness with aging for many immune functions, including thymic functions. MTs levels are increased, other than into the liver, also into the thymus during aging and in young hepatectomized (pHx) mice as compared to young sham controls. MTs may be one of the possible causes of reduced thymic efficiency and impaired liver extrathymic T-cell pathway in old age because of their higher zinc binding affinity rather than thymulin with consequent reduction of the free quota of zinc available for normal cell-mediated immunity. Following that, MTs may contribute to thymic involution and impaired peripheral immune efficiency in aging and in young prix mice with different roles during the whole life of an organism: protective in young-adult age which may became, at least, dangerous for immune responses in aging. In order to limit or avoid this latter MTs possible role in aging, supplementing physiological zinc may be useful to improve immune responses in old age because of no interference of endogenous zinc on already high thymus MTs levels, but with caution for competition phenomena with copper, as documented in old mice and in syndrome of accelerate aging.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)183-204
Number of pages22
JournalMechanisms of Ageing and Development
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - Dec 1 1998


  • Aging
  • Metallothioneins
  • T-cell pathways
  • Thymic involution
  • Zinc

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ageing
  • Biochemistry
  • Developmental Biology
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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