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Developmental Immunology
Volume 6, Issue 1-2, Pages 129-140

Paraneoplastic Autoimmunity in Thymus Tumors

Department of Pathology, University of Würzburg, Josef-Schneider-Strasse 2, Würzburg D-97080, Germany

Revised 22 May 1997; Accepted 30 May 1997

Copyright © 1998 Hindawi Publishing Corporation. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Autoimmune phenomena are more frequent in thymic epithelial tumors (TET) than in any other human tumor. Mysthenia gravis (MG) is by far the most common autoimmune disease in thymoma patients. MG is characterized by muscle weakness due to autoantibodies against the acetylcholine receptor (AChR), and CD4 +AChR-specific T cells play a pivotal role for the production of these autoantibodies. About 10% of MG patients have a thymoma and, interestingly, only such thymomas exhibit an MG association that maintains thymuslike morphological and functional features with respect to the homing and differentiation of immature T cells. Since AChR protein is not expressed in thymomas, the specificity of the autoimmunity in thymoma-associated MG is thought to be determined by nonreceptor proteins with AChR epitopes. Such proteins are overexpressed in cortical-type MG-associated thymomas, and medullary thymomas express these proteins at barely detectable levels. Aside from this quantitative difference, the pathogenesis of anti-AChR autoimmunity might be qualitatively different in these thymoma subtypes. Our findings suggest that an antigen-specific abnormal Tcell selection by cortical-type TET may contribute to the pathogenesis of paraneoplastic MG. In contrast, an abnormal (intratumorous) activation of autoreactive T cells may be operative in medullary thymomas.