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Study reveals key insights of thymus development in humans

10 April 2013

The thymus, a specialised organ of the immune system located in front of the heart, is responsible for making the majority of the body’s so-called ‘T-cells’.

These T-cells destroy virally infected cells, assist other white blood cells in immunologic processes and provide the immune system with a ‘memory’ against past infections.

The thymus is largest and most active in young children. However, by the early teens, as part of normal development, the thymus begins to shrink and thymic cells are replaced by fat tissue. Although thymus development has been studied in mice, little is known how the human thymus develops.

A study, led by CRM Professor Clare Blackburn and colleagues, now shows that the timing of key events in the developmental process in humans is similar to mice.

The findings have been published online on 9 April 2013 in the journal Development.

Prof Clare Blackburn said: “We are very excited about our findings, but are also aware how little is understood about the underlying mechanism regulating thymus development.”

She continued: “We need to know a lot more about thymus development before we can start thinking about enhancing or replacing thymus function in patients to boost their immune system.”

The study, funded by Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research, the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust, the EU FP7 project EuroSystem and NWO (the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research), was carried out in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh’s MRC Centre for Reproductive Health and the Erasmus University Medical Center in The Netherlands.