The ability to culture human thymic epithelial cells has greatly facilitated studies of direct cell-cell interaction between thymic epithelial cells and T lymphocytes in vitro, as well as cytokine production and regulation of cytokine production. In vitro, human thymic epithelial cells bind to T lymphocytes via two adhesion pathways: CD2-lymphocyte function-associated antigen-3 and lymphocyte function-associated antigen-1-intercellular adhesion molecule-1. Cultured human thymic epithelial cells produce interleukins-1 alpha, -1 beta, -3, -6 and -8, granulocyte colony-stimulating factor, macrophage colony-stimulating factor, granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor, leukemia inhibitory factor and transforming growth factor-alpha. Production of thymic epithelial cell-derived cytokines is regulated by both adhesion molecules (lymphocyte function-associated antigen-3) and soluble factors via both autocrine (interleukin-1 alpha, transforming growth factor-alpha) and paracrine (interleukin-4, interferon-gamma) pathways. Transforming growth factor-alpha and epidermal growth factor regulate various cytokine mRNA at a post-transcriptional level by increasing cytokine mRNA stability.