Assessing ageing of individual T lymphocytes: mission impossible?

Mech Ageing Dev. Jan-Feb 2008;129(1-2):67-78. doi: 10.1016/j.mad.2007.10.005. Epub 2007 Oct 30.


Effector T lymphocytes are the progeny of a limited number of antigen-specific precursor cells and it has been estimated that clonotypic human T cells may expand million fold on their way reaching high cell numbers that are sufficient for immune protection. Moreover, memory T cell responses are characterized by repetitive expansion of antigen-specific T cell clonotypes, and limitations in the proliferative capacity could lead to immune senescence. Because telomeres progressively shorten as a function of cell division, telomere length is a powerful indicator of the replicative in vivo history of human T lymphocytes. In this review, we summarize observations made over the last decade on telomere length dynamics of well-defined T cell populations derived from healthy donors and patients with infectious disease or cancer. We focus on T cell differentiation, T cell ageing, and natural and vaccine induced immune responses. We also discuss the scientific evidence for in vivo replicative senescence of antigen-specific T cells, and evaluate the available methods for measuring telomere lengths and telomerase activity, and their potential and limitations to increase our understanding of T cell physiology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adoptive Transfer
  • Aging
  • Animals
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Cellular Senescence*
  • Humans
  • In Situ Hybridization, Fluorescence
  • Mice
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • T-Lymphocytes / cytology
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • T-Lymphocytes / transplantation
  • Telomere / chemistry
  • Telomere / metabolism*
  • Vaccines / immunology


  • Vaccines