This new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that the thymus gland, which produces immune T cells before birth and during childhood, might continue to play a vital role in adult health. The commonly held belief that the thymus is nonfunctional in adults is being challenged by this research. The study compared 1,146 adults who had their thymus removed during surgery to 1,146 similar patients who underwent cardiothoracic surgery without thymectomy, serving as a control group.
The findings indicated that the thymectomy group had a higher overall mortality rate and cancer mortality rate compared to the general U.S. population. The risk of autoimmune disease did not differ significantly between the thymectomy and control groups in the overall analysis. However, when patients with pre-existing infection, cancer, or autoimmune disease prior to surgery were excluded from the analysis, differences were observed, suggesting a potential link between thymus function and autoimmune diseases.
“By studying people who had their thymus removed, we discovered that the thymus is absolutely required for health. If it isn’t there, people’s risk of dying and risk of cancer is at least double,” stated senior author David T. Scadden, MD, director of the Center for Regenerative Medicine at MGH and co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.
“This indicates that the consequences of thymus removal should be carefully considered when contemplating thymectomy.”
The researchers also measured T-cell production and immune-related molecules in a subset of patients who underwent thymectomy and control surgery. The results showed that those who had their thymus removed had consistently lower levels of new T cells and higher levels of pro-inflammatory molecules in their blood. This observation implies that the thymus may have a role in regulating the immune system and preventing chronic inflammation in adults.
These findings shed new light on the importance of the thymus in adult health, and they suggest that the thymus may be involved in preventing cancer and possibly autoimmune diseases. However, further research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms and implications of these findings. The study opens up new avenues for studying the thymus’s function in adults and its potential impact on overall health and immune-related diseases.
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