October 2023 | George M. Pikler, M.D., Ph.D., FACP

Often Removed Gland Might Ward off Cancer

A fatty gland above the heart called the thymus, which is often removed during heart surgery, could be protecting people against cancer. In children, this organ is known to help develop the immune system. Its function in human adults is unclear.

An observational research study, (1) led by researchers at three Boston, MA institutions, evaluated the risk of death, cancer, and autoimmune disease among 7,000 adult patients who had undergone thymectomy as compared with demographically matched controls who had undergone similar cardiothoracic surgery without thymectomy. T-cell production and plasma cytokine levels were also compared in a subgroup of patients.

In this study, all-cause mortality and the risk of cancer were higher among patients who had undergone thymectomy than among controls. Thymectomy also appeared be associated with an increased risk of autoimmune disease when patients with preoperative infection, cancer, or autoimmune disease were excluded from the analysis.

“Together, these findings support a role for the thymus contributing to new T-cell production in adulthood and to the maintenance of adult human health. The disruption of homeostasis caused by thymectomy is sufficient to adversely affect critical health outcomes, which argues strongly that the adult thymus remains functionally important” wrote the researchers.

(1) N Engl J Med 2023; 389: 406-417