There is a small sebaceous gland that sits behind the sternum and is often considered “useless” in adult life. However, a recent retrospective study suggests that the thymus gland is not as replaceable as experts thought.
The organ that could be the key to the fight against cancer
US researchers have found that those who have their thymus removed face an increased risk of dying from any cause later in life. They also face an increased risk of developing cancer.
The study is purely observational, meaning it cannot show that removing the thymus directly causes cancer or other fatal diseases.
But the researchers are concerned about their findings. Until we know more, they say preserving the thymus “should be a clinical priority” if possible.
“The magnitude of the risk was something we would never have expected,” oncologist David Scadden told Anne Manning at the Harvard Gazette.
In childhood, the thymus is known to play a critical role in the development of the immune system. When the gland is removed in childhood, patients experience long-term reductions in T cells, which are a type of white blood cell that fights germs and disease.
Children without a thymus also usually have an impaired immune response to vaccines.
By the time a person reaches puberty, however, the thymus shrinks and produces far fewer T cells for the body. It can apparently be removed without immediate harm, and because it is in front of the heart, it is often removed during cardiothoracic surgery.
But while some patients with thymus cancer or chronic autoimmune diseases require a thymectomy, in which the thymus is surgically removed, the gland is not always an obstacle.
It might even be very helpful
Using patient data from a state health system, Boston researchers compared the outcomes of patients who underwent cardiothoracic surgery: more than 6,000 people (the control group) who did not have their thymus removed and 1,146 people who had their thymus removed. thymus removed.
Those who had a thymectomy were nearly twice as likely as the control group to die within 5 years, even after controlling for sex, age, race, and those with thymus cancer or postoperative infections , writes sciencealert.
Patients who had their thymus removed were also twice as likely to develop cancer within 5 years of surgery.
Moreover, this cancer was generally more aggressive and often recurred after treatment compared to the control group.
Why these associations exist is unknown, but researchers suspect that the lack of a thymus somehow affects the healthy functioning of the adult’s immune system.
“Together, these findings support a role for the thymus in contributing to the production of new T cells during adulthood and the maintenance of adult human health,” the study authors conclude.
Their results, they say, strongly suggest that the thymus plays an important role in our ongoing health.