In mammals, parathyroid hormone (PTH) is a key regulator of extracellular calcium and inorganic phosphorus homeostasis. Although the parathyroid glands were thought to be the only source of PTH, extra-parathyroid PTH production in the thymus, which shares a common origin with parathyroids during organogenesis, has been proposed to provide an auxiliary source of PTH, resulting in a higher than expected survival rate for aparathyroid Gcm2 −/− mutants. However, the developmental ontogeny and cellular identity of these “thymic” PTH–expressing cells is unknown. We found that the lethality of aparathyroid Gcm2 −/− mutants was affected by genetic background without relation to serum PTH levels, suggesting a need to reconsider the physiological function of thymic PTH. We identified two sources of extra-parathyroid PTH in wild-type mice. Incomplete separation of the parathyroid and thymus organs during organogenesis resulted in misplaced, isolated parathyroid cells that were often attached to the thymus; this was the major source of thymic PTH in normal mice. Analysis of thymus and parathyroid organogenesis in human embryos showed a broadly similar result, indicating that these results may provide insight into human parathyroid development. In addition, medullary thymic epithelial cells (mTECs) express PTH in a Gcm2-independent manner that requires TEC differentiation and is consistent with expression as a self-antigen for negative selection. Genetic or surgical removal of the thymus indicated that thymus-derived PTH in Gcm2 −/− mutants did not provide auxiliary endocrine function. Our data show conclusively that the thymus does not serve as an auxiliary source of either serum PTH or parathyroid function. We further show that the normal process of parathyroid organogenesis in both mice and humans leads to the generation of multiple small parathyroid clusters in addition to the main parathyroid glands, that are the likely source of physiologically relevant “thymic PTH.”
Due to the important role of PTH in the regulation of physiological activities, disorders in PTH production can cause many diseases in humans. Thus it is very important to understand where PTH is produced and how it is regulated. Many people have been found to have ectopic and supernumerary parathyroid glands without clear ontogenesis. In addition, the thymus, which develops together with the parathyroid during embryogenesis, has been proposed to be an auxiliary source of PTH with endocrine function; however, PTH is also a tissue-restricted self-antigen expressed by the thymus. In this paper, we provide insights into the ontogeny and function of thymus-associated PTH. We found that ectopic and supernumerary parathyroid glands originate from the normal developmental process underlying the separation of parathyroid and thymus, resulting in misplaced parathyroids close or attached to thymus. In the thymus, thymic epithelial cells can produce a low level of PTH via a different mechanism than the parathyroid and provide functional data that TEC-derived PTH does not have endocrine function. In summary, our data show that the thymic source of PTH has no endocrine function and, instead, has an expression pattern in the thymus consistent with that of a self-antigen for negative selection.