The immune system response during development and progression of carcinogen-induced rat mammary tumors: prevention of tumor growth and restoration of immune system responsiveness by thymopentin

Francesco Gallo, Maria C. Morale, Daniela Sambataro, Zelinda Farinella, Umberto Scapagnini, Bianca Marchetti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A detailed analysis of the immune system response has been performed during the development and progression of dimethylbenz(a)anthracene (DMBA)-induced rat mammary tumors. For this aim, a number of immune parameters (thymocyte and splenocyte proliferative response to T-dependent mitogens, antibody production, lymphocyte subset phenotyping, interleukin 2 receptor expression in resting and activated lymphocytes, thymus morphology and morphometry), were correlated with tumor appearance and growth at different (- 7, 0, + 15, + 30, + 60, + 90, and + 120 days) time intervals after intragastric administration of DMBA, in the absence or the presence of a concomitant treatment with the thymic pentapeptide thymopentin (TP5). A profound and time-dependent immunosuppression characterized the treatment with the carcinogen. Both cell-mediated and humoral immune responses showed a 50% inhibition 2 weeks after DMBA administration, with a peak after 30 days, followed by a plateau until 120 days of observation. The mechanism responsible for reduced ability of thymocytes and splenocytes to respond to both Con-A and PHA was explained by the significant inhibition of one of the key steps of T cell activation, namely the expression of IL-2 receptor in lymphocytes from DMBA-treated animals. The flow cytometric analysis of lymphocyte subpopulations revealed an important reduction in the overall populations of thymocytes and splenocytes. At the thymus gland level, a dramatic reduction of double positive CD4+CD8+ and a decrease of CD4+CD8- and CD4-CD8+ were observed, together with a marked atrophy of the thymic cortex, and impairment of the thymic microenvironment. One hundred and twenty days after DMBA administration, approximately 60 to 70% of the animals developed tumors with a mean tumor surface area of 2.88 ± 0.86 cm2, and a number of 2.44 ± 1.0. Treatment with TP5 (100 ng/animal, three times a week, starting a week before DMBA), produced specific effects on different immune compartments and tumoral growth, characterized by a significant reversal of immune depression with a stimulatory effect measured on lymphoproliferative assays, lymphocyte subset distribution, and IL-2 receptor expression. Moreover, thymic atrophy was almost completely prevented in TP5 treated animals. Of major interest, a significant delay in the appearance and growth of tumors was observed in TP5 treated rats. When DMBA-treated animals were followed for the entire observation period (0-120 days) and the immune responsiveness correlated according to tumor progression, stability, or regression, a positive correlation was calculated between the degree of immune system depression and the individual rate of tumor growth; in TP5-treated rats the majority of the tumors were static or regressing tumors. It is concluded that a profound and specific suppression of thymus-dependent immune functions follows the treatment with the carcinogen DMBA. Such immune deficits appear 2 weeks after the carcinogen administration, and may represent early indicators of tumor development and growth. A key role is suggested for the thymus gland and its peptide secretion, since the dramatic atrophy of this gland and the abnormal thymusdependent immune parameters studied are almost completely reversed by a synchronized treatment with thymopentin. Although from the present results it seems not possible to conclusively assign a specific causeeffect relationship, from the parallel delay in tumor appearance and growth in TP5-treated rats it seems tempting to speculate that the decline in thymus-dependent immune functions may play a major role in tumor development.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)221-237
Number of pages17
JournalBreast Cancer Research and Treatment
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1993


  • cell-mediated immunity
  • dimethylbenz(a)anthracene
  • humoral immune response
  • interleukin 2 receptors
  • lymphocyte subsets
  • mammary tumors
  • thymic hormones
  • thymopentin
  • thymus gland

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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