Research in thymus cancer

Last medical review:

We are always learning more about cancer. Researchers and healthcare professionals use what they learn from research studies to develop better ways to treat thymus cancer. The following is a selection of research showing promise for treating thymus cancer.

We've included information from the following sources. Each item has an identity number that links to a brief overview (sometimes called an abstract).

  • PubMed, US National Library of Medicine (PMID)
  • Canadian Cancer Trials and ClinicalTrials.gov (NCT)

Surgery

Surgery is commonly used to treat thymus cancer.

Video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery (VATS) is a type of thoracoscopy. A small video camera attached to the thoracoscope helps guide surgeons as they remove tissue from the chest. VATS can be used to remove part or all of the thymus (called a thymectomy). Researchers compared VATS to a traditional open thymectomy in people with early stage thymus cancer. They found that VATS is safe and has better surgical outcomes, including less blood loss and a shorter hospital stay. The survival rate was similar for both approaches to surgery (European Journal of Cardiothoracic Surgery, PMID 30016438; Surgery Today, PMID 30430264; Journal of Thoracic Disease, PMID 29600059; Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, PMID 32245668).

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is mainly used to treat stage 3, stage 4 and recurrent thymus cancer. Researchers continue to look for ways to improve how effective it is in treating thymus cancer.

Researchers are studying the following drugs for thymus cancer that has already been treated with other chemotherapy drugs:

Researchers are studying the following combinations of chemotherapy drugs to treat and improve survival for thymus cancer:

  • cisplatin (Platinol AQ), gemcitabine (Gemzar) and endostar (Thoracic Cancer, PMID 30411854)
  • capecitabine (Xeloda) and celecoxib (Celebrex) (American Journal of Clinical Oncology, PMID 28654574)

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy helps to strengthen or restore the immune system's ability to fight cancer. This works to kill cancer cells and stop cancer cells from growing and spreading.

Immune checkpoint inhibitors help the immune system kill cancer cells. The immune system normally stops itself from attacking healthy cells in the body by having some cells make specific proteins called checkpoints. Cancer cells sometimes use these checkpoints to avoid being attacked by the immune system. Immune checkpoint inhibitors are monoclonal antibodies that work by blocking checkpoint proteins so T cells (a type of white blood cell) can attack and kill cancers cells. Researchers are studying the following immune checkpoint inhibitors for advanced or recurrent thymic carcinoma:

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy uses drugs to target specific molecules (such as proteins) on cancer cells or inside them. These molecules help send signals that tell cells to grow or divide. By targeting these molecules, the drugs stop the growth and spread of cancer cells and limit harm to normal cells.

Tyrosine kinase inhibitors block chemicals called kinases. These chemicals are part of the signalling process within cells. When this process is blocked, the cell stops growing and dividing. Researchers are studying the following tyrosine kinase inhibitors to treat advanced or metastatic thymic carcinoma:

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is commonly used to treat thymus cancer. But it can have long-term effects. So researchers are studying better ways of giving radiation therapy to reduce side effects and improve long-term survival.

Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) and 3D conformal radiation therapy (3D-CRT) allow doctors to accurately target the tumour without damaging the normal tissue around it. Radiation therapy can be added to chemotherapy to get a greater effect (International Journal of Surgery, PMID 29673690; International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology and Physics, PMID 31987968).

Proton therapy (also called proton beam therapy) uses high-energy, or charged, proton particles. These particles can be aimed more precisely at the tumour than the x-ray beams used in conventional radiation therapy. Research shows that proton therapy can control the growth of thymus cancer with fewer side effects. It also causes less damage to nearby tissues (such as the lungs, heart and esophagus) than IMRT (Acta Oncologica, PMID 30784340).

Learn more about cancer research

Researchers continue to try to find out more about cancer. Clinical trials are research studies that test new ways to treat cancer. They also look at ways to prevent, find and manage cancer.

Clinical trials provide information about the safety and effectiveness of new approaches to see if they should become widely available. Most of the standard treatments for cancer were first shown to be effective through clinical trials.

Find out more about clinical trials.

Expert review and references

  • Pierre-Olivier Fiset, MDCM, PhD, FRCPC
  • Donna Maziak, MD, MSc, FRCPC