The thymus is derived from the third and fourth pharyngeal pouches and is located in the anterior mediastinum. It is composed of epithelial and stromal cells derived from the pharyngeal pouch and lymphoid precursors derived from mesodermal cells. It is the site to which bone marrow precursors that are committed to differentiate into T cells migrate to complete their differentiation. Like many organs, it is organized into functional regions, in this case the cortex and the medulla. The cortex of the thymus contains ~85% of the lymphoid cells, and the medulla contains ~15%. It appears that the primitive bone marrow progenitors enter the thymus at the corticomedullary junction and migrate first through the cortex toward the periphery of the gland and then toward the medulla as they mature. Medullary thymocytes have a phenotype that cannot be distinguished readily from that of mature peripheral blood and lymph node T cells.
Several things can go wrong with the thymus, but thymic abnormalities are very rare. If the thymus does not develop properly, serious deficiencies in T-cell development ensue and severe immunodeficiency is seen. If a lymphoid cell within the thymus becomes neoplastic, the disease that develops is a lymphoma. The majority of lymphoid tumors that develop in the thymus are derived from the precursor T cells, and the tumor is a precursor T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma (Chap. 16). Rare B cells exist in the thymus, and when they become neoplastic, the tumor is a mediastinal (thymic) B cell lymphoma (Chap. 16). Hodgkin’s disease, particularly the nodular sclerosing subtype, often involves the anterior mediastinum. Extranodal marginal zone (mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue [MALT]) lymphomas have been reported to involve the thymus in the setting of Sjögren’s syndrome or other autoimmune disorders, and the lymphoma cells often express IgA instead of IgM on their surface. Castleman’s disease can involve the thymus. Germ cell tumors and carcinoid tumors occasionally may arise in the thymus. If the epithelial cells of the thymus become neoplastic, the tumor that develops is a thymoma.
CLINICAL PRESENTATION AND DIFFERENTIAL DIAGNOSIS
Thymoma, although rare (0.1–0.15 cases per 100,000 person-years), is the most common cause of an anterior mediastinal mass in adults, accounting for ~40% of all mediastinal masses. The other major causes of anterior mediastinal masses are lymphomas, germ cell tumors, and substernal thyroid tumors. Carcinoid tumors, lipomas, and thymic cysts also may produce radiographic masses. After combination chemotherapy for another malignancy, teenagers and young adults may develop a rebound thymic hyperplasia in the first few months after treatment. Granulomatous inflammatory diseases (tuberculosis, sarcoidosis) can produce thymic enlargement. Thymomas are most common in the fifth and sixth decades, are uncommon in children, and are distributed evenly between men and women.
About 40–50% of patients are asymptomatic; masses are detected incidentally on routine chest radiographs. When symptomatic, patients may have cough, chest pain, dyspnea, fever, ...