The dream of regenerative medicine is to build fully functioning organs. A dream that’s seen its realization in the creation of an artificial thymus, thanks to teams of British and Italian researchers.

The thymus is an organ located in the chest, behind the sternum. It’s very important because its main function is to ensure the maturation of T lymphocytes; a type of white blood cells that play a key role within the immune system.

What happens if the thymus is not functioning properly?

If the thymus doesn’t function properly, or is not formed during fetal development, serious immune system diseases such as immunodeficiency (whereby, the body is unable to fight off infectious diseases) can occur.

In other cases, a malfunction of the thymus can lead to autoimmunity; whereby, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. Ultimately, it’s also possible for a tumor to develop, called Thymoma in 90% of cases. Thymoma is a tumor that mainly affects adults between 40 and 60 years old.

How can we treat an incorrectly functioning thymus or a pathology affecting the thymus?

In the case of failure of fetal development, unfortunately, there are no treatments; in other cases such as cancer, we can intervene surgically or with either chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatments.

What have British and Italian researchers discovered?

While Researchers from the Francis Crick Institute and University College London, with the contribution of the Laboratory of Organism Epigenetics and Stem Cells of the European Institute of Oncology in Milan, have reconstructed (for the first time) an artificial thymus.

The study was recently published in Nature Communications and has aroused much interest because the reconstruction of the organ was developed, starting from stem cells of patients undergoing surgical removal of the thymus.

It must be clarified that this is not an artificial thymus then re-implanted into the patient, but the thymus was implanted in an animal model, specifically in an immunodeficient mouse, that is not able to develop mature, functioning T lymphocytes.

What will the future steps be?

This study proves that it’s possible to reconstruct a thymus from the patient’s own stem cells; something that’s never been done before for any organ.

The intention of the group of the European Institute of Oncology, is to use this technique in cases of cancer of the thymus, when the removal of the patient’s thymus becomes critical.

Moreover, since the thymus aids the immune system in recognizing foreign cells, in the case of organ transplants, it may happen that the donor organ is recognized as foreign by the recipient and then the thymus pushes the immune system to attack the “foreign invader”.

This problem could be overcome by implanting in the recipient a thymus regenerated from cells taken from the donor’s thymus, which should recognize the cells of the transplanted organ as its own.

In short, another important step for Science in the fight against cancer.

This post is also available in: Italiano


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