Researchers from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Newcastle University and Ghent University, Belgium have created the first atlas of the human thymus gland, which could lead to new immune therapies to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases. This mapping assists in understanding how thymus tissue develops and makes vital immune cells called T cells. Further research could allow researchers to generate an artificial thymus and engineer improved therapeutic T cells.

The thymus gland is located in the chest and produces T cells, key white blood cells that fight infection and disease. These T cells then leave the thymus to enter the blood and other parts of the body to mature further. T cells seek out and destroy invading bacteria and viruses, and also, crucially, recognise cancer cells and kill them.

Problems in thymus development cause defective T cell generation, which can result in sever immune deficiencies and leave people susceptible to infections. The problems can also affect T cell regulation, resulting in autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes.

Mature cells have been studied extensively, but the development of the human thymus and T cells within it is not fully understood.

Researchers used single cell technology to isolate and analyse around 200,000 individual cells from the developing thymus, and child and adult thymus tissue. They looked at which genes were active in each individual cell to identify the cells, discovering new cell types, and used those genes as tags to map each cell to its exact location in the thymus.

This research has allowed researchers to understand what is happening in a healthy thymus across a human lifespan, from development to adulthood, and how it allows for the successful formation of T cells. The atlas of the human thymus gland will allow researchers worldwide to understand how the immune system develops to protect the body.

Therapeutic T cells are currently used in clinics to treat B-cell lymphoma and leukaemia cancers, however a major drawback to these treatments is creating the right subtype of T cells.

A comprehensive map of the thymus gland has the potential to allow for the engineering of T cells outside the body with exactly the right properties to fight specific cancers, in essence creating tailored treatments for tumours.

T cell and thymus gland research allows researching to better understand how immunity develops in the human body, and casts a light on aging and how the immune system itself changes through life. It helps researchers learn about developmental pathways in the body, and the age-associated decline of the immune system.

This research forms a part of the Human Cell Atlas, which is a global project dedicated to charting every cell type in the human body, as a basis for both understanding human health and diagnosing, monitoring and treating disease.

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