Researchers regrow disease-fighting organ

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

mice thymus
The researchers were able to regenerate the thymus of mice.

As we get older, our bodies slowly wear down and our organs aren’t as efficient as they were in our youth. This is especially true of the thymus, which is a key organ for the immune system. Now, researchers have figured out how to reset the biological clock and make the disease-fighting organ as good as new!

The thymus is a small butterfly-shaped organ snuggled up right against our hearts. It’s responsible for growing cells that fight infections and keep us healthy. However, the thymus is also one of the first organs in our bodies to break down, losing 90% of its original mass by the time we are 70 years old! As it deteriorates, a protein known as Foxn1 stops being produced, which further weakens the thymus and its ability to fight illnesses.

For their study, researchers injected mice with a drug that increased levels of Foxn1. Not only did this cause the size of the organ to increase, it also boosted immune cell production! Overall, the treated disease-fighting organ resembled a much fitter, much healthier mouse thymus. The study didn’t exactly show that the immune system grew stronger, but the researchers point out it’s the next logical step in the process.

The implications of this study don’t stop at healthy lab rodents, either. The thymus of a human is nearly identical to that of a mouse, and the results of this study may very well be replicated with us! The methods could be used to treat senior citizens, whose immune systems are not what they once were, or treat individuals suffering from DiGeorge syndrome, a disease which affects the development of the thymus. However, there is still much more testing to conduct before the process is deemed safe enough to use on people.

Image of mice courtesy of KimCarpenter NJ on Flickr.