Autoimmunity: What Is It And How Is Science Helping?

Immune System

From the handrails on the bus to the cutlery in your staff canteen, the world is full of harmful pathogens. There’s no getting around them; everyday you find yourself exposed to countless bacteria and viruses.

Left unchecked, these would run rampant through your body, resulting in any number of diseases and illnesses.

Often the only thing standing between these pathogens and you is the effectiveness of your immune system.

What is the immune system?

Generally considered one of our greatest evolutionary advantages, the immune system is your body’s biological response system that protects you against disease. It works by specifically identifying harmful agents in your body, such as bacteria and viruses.

Once detected, these pathogens find themselves under attack from your immune system, which in most cases destroys them before they can do you proper harm.

Innate and adaptive

The immune system can be divided into two main layers: the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system.

The innate immune system is a general first defence, responding broadly to a range of cellular alarms and distress signals in order to fight microbes in a general, non-specific way.

Our adaptive immune system is the next level of defence, evolved to offer a stronger, more specific response to harmful pathogens. It offers immunological memory, enabling tailored responses and faster defences against future reinfections.
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Preaching Tolerance

INNATE-+-ADAPTIVESometimes, the immune system just backfires. It responds inappropriately, leading to autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and systemic lupus erythematosus. Other times it overreacts to an otherwise harmless target, leading to allergies ranging from the mild, like hay fever, to the severe, like anaphylactic peanut allergies.

Autoimmune and allergic diseases are mostly a problem of the adaptive arm of the immune system, that part of immunity that can learn new targets and attack. But the ‘innate’, or non-specific, immune system plays its part too. Parts of it a necessary to help educate the adaptive arm, and to temper its responses. Exactly how is still not all that clear, but new research from Imperial College has shed a little more light on this process. Continue reading