Thymic Function Associated With Cancer Development, Relapse, and Antitumor Immunity – A Mini-Review

Weikan Wang, Rachel Thomas, Olga Sizova, Dong Ming Su

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


The thymus is the central lymphoid organ for T cell development, a cradle of T cells, and for central tolerance establishment, an educator of T cells, maintaining homeostatic cellular immunity. T cell immunity is critical to control cancer occurrence, relapse, and antitumor immunity. Evidence on how aberrant thymic function influences cancer remains largely insufficient, however, there has been recent progress. For example, the involuted thymus results in reduced output of naïve T cells and a restricted T cell receptor (TCR) repertoire, inducing immunosenescence and potentially dampening immune surveillance of neoplasia. In addition, the involuted thymus relatively enhances regulatory T (Treg) cell generation. This coupled with age-related accumulation of Treg cells in the periphery, potentially provides a supportive microenvironment for tumors to escape T cell-mediated antitumor responses. Furthermore, acute thymic involution from chemotherapy can create a tumor reservoir, resulting from an inflammatory microenvironment in the thymus, which is suitable for disseminated tumor cells to hide, survive chemotherapy, and become dormant. This may eventually result in cancer metastatic relapse. On the other hand, if thymic involution is wisely taken advantage of, it may be potentially beneficial to antitumor immunity, since the involuted thymus increases output of self-reactive T cells, which may recognize certain tumor-associated self-antigens and enhance antitumor immunity, as demonstrated through depletion of autoimmune regulator (AIRE) gene in the thymus. Herein, we briefly review recent research progression regarding how altered thymic function modifies T cell immunity against tumors.

Original languageEnglish
Article number773
JournalFrontiers in Immunology
StatePublished - 30 Apr 2020


  • cancer immunity
  • negative selection and regulatory T (Treg) cell generation
  • thymic involution
  • tumor microenvironment
  • tumor reservoir


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