In immunology, the CD3 (cluster of differentiation 3) T-cell co-receptor is a protein complex and is composed of four distinct chains. In mammals, the complex contains a CD3γ chain, a CD3δ chain, and two CD3ε chains. These chains associate with a molecule known as the T-cell receptor (TCR) and the ζ-chain to generate an activation signal in T lymphocytes. The TCR, ζ-chain, and CD3 molecules together comprise the TCR complex.
CD3 is initially expressed in the cytoplasm of pro-thymocytes, the stem cells from which T-cells arise in the thymus. The pro-thymocytes differentiate into common thymocytes, and then into medullary thymocytes, and it is at this latter stage that CD3 antigen begins to migrate to the cell membrane. The antigen is found bound to the membranes of all mature T-cells, and in virtually no other cell type, although it does appear to be present in small amounts in Purkinje cells.
This high specificity, combined with the presence of CD3 at all stages of T-cell development, makes it a useful immunohistochemical marker for T-cells in tissue sections. The antigen remains present in almost all T-cell lymphomas and leukaemias, and can therefore be used to distinguish them from superficially similar B-cell and myeloidneoplasms.