A cloning technique was used to estimate the frequency of proliferating T cell precursors, the growth capacity of clone-forming cells and the functional activity of clones established in vitro from peripheral blood lymphocytes of young and old people. The mean frequency of proliferating precursors was lower in the elderly as was the proliferative capacity of CD8+ clones. In contrast, CD4+ and CD16+ clones showed a proliferation similar to that obtained from young subjects. When the clones were examined for their functional activity, CD4+ clones from both groups failed to show any cytolytic activity, while CD8+ clones exerted cytolysis against K562 and in antibody-dependent cell-mediated cytotoxicity but this function was reduced in clones derived from old subjects. Similarly, CD16+ clones from the elderly showed a decreased activity at some effector-to-target cell ratios. We conclude that the impaired functional activity (T or NK-dependent) found in the peripheral blood of aged subjects persists after in vitro selection when these cells are analysed at clonal level.
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