The thymus gland, located behind the sternum, has long been considered “useless” in adulthood. However, a recent study by American scientists has shown that the thymus plays a much more important role in our health than we previously thought.
Researchers found that patients who had their thymus removed had an increased risk of dying from any cause in old age. In addition, they also have an increased risk of developing cancer. While the study cannot give a definitive answer about whether removing the thymus directly leads to cancer or other deadly diseases, the findings have raised concerns among scientists.
During childhood, the thymus plays an important role in the development of the immune system. Patients who have their thymus removed at an early age have a decreased number of T-cells that fight germs and disease. This also results in a weakened immune response to vaccines. However, by puberty, the thymus is no longer as active and produces far fewer T-cells. Therefore, its removal seems safe and is even often performed during cardiothoracic surgery.
But a new study shows that the thymus can be a very useful organ. Using data on patients who had their thymus removed or preserved, researchers found that thymectomy patients were nearly twice as likely to die within 5 years of surgery as controls. These patients were also twice as likely to develop cancer that was more aggressive and recurred frequently after treatment.
It is not yet known why the absence of the thymus is associated with an increased risk of cancer and death. However, the researchers hypothesize that it may be related to a malfunctioning adult immune system. Patients who had their thymus removed were found to have fewer diverse T-cell receptors, which may contribute to cancer or autoimmune diseases.
These studies support the important role of the thymus in producing new T cells in adulthood and maintaining health. Therefore, thymus preservation should be a clinical priority wherever possible. This discovery may change the way we think about the importance of this organ and lead to new treatments and disease prevention methods.