A little fatty gland located beneath your sternum is frequently referred to as “useless” in adulthood.
However, a recent retrospective analysis reveals that the thymus gland is not nearly as disposable as doctors previously believed.
According to US studies, those who have their thymus removed are more likely to die later in life from any cause.
Additionally, they have a higher chance of getting cancer.
The study is solely observational, thus it cannot demonstrate that removing the thymus causes cancer or other fatal diseases in a cause-and-effect manner.
But the findings of the study worry the researchers. They contend that if possible, protecting the thymus “should be a clinical priority” until we learn more.
According to oncologist David Scadden, “the magnitude of risk was something we would have never expected” (Anne Manning, Harvard Gazette).
The thymus is recognized to be extremely important for the immune system’s development during childhood. Young patients who have the gland removed see long-term declines in T-cells, a category of white blood cell that fights infection and disease.
Children without thymus typically have a weakened immune response to vaccinations.
However, the thymus shrinks and generates much fewer T-cells for the body once a person reaches puberty. Because it resides in front of the heart, it can appear to be removed without causing any immediate injury, and this is frequently done during cardiothoracic surgery.
Although thymectomy, or surgical removal of the thymus, is sometimes necessary for people with thymus cancer or persistent autoimmune illnesses like myasthenia gravis, the gland isn’t always a problem.
It might even be a great aid.
Researchers in Boston examined the results of patients who had undergone cardiothoracic surgery between 1,146 patients who had their thymus removed and more than 6,000 controls who did not, using patient data from a state healthcare system.
Even after taking into consideration factors such as gender, age, race, myasthenia gravis, and postoperative infections, those who had a thymectomy had a mortality rate that was nearly twice as high as that of controls within 5 years.
Within five years following surgery, patients who had their thymus removed had a twofold increased risk of developing cancer.
Additionally, compared to the control group, this malignancy was often more aggressive and frequently returned after treatment.
It is unclear why these relationships exist, but scientists believe a thymus deficiency is interfering in some way with the healthy operation of the adult immune system.
Less diversified T-cell receptors were detected in the bloodwork of a subset of study participants who had undergone thymectomy, which may have an impact on the development of cancer or autoimmune illnesses following surgery.
The study’s authors write, “Together, these results support a role for the thymus in contributing to new T-cell production in adulthood and to the maintenance of adult human health.”
Their findings, they claim, strongly imply that the thymus continues to play a functionally significant role in our ultimate health throughout.
The study was published in The New England Journal of Medicine.