Balancing the immune system

November 29, 2016

The immune system grants us protection against virus, bacteria and other types of infections. The efficiency of the immune system is very high however sometimes it makes mistakes which have the unexpected effect of causing disease rather than curing them.

The immune system can be considered as a ‘shape recognition system’. Cells that make the immune system are free to travel within the body - in the blood and tissues - rubbing up to other cells and tissues, and while doing this they are constantly reading the signals of other cells and other tissues by simply contacting with them.

These signals that they receive can be quite complex; some cells and tissues would say: “leave me alone”, others would say “come here” or “help me, save me, bring reinforcements”, the latter ones are especially good when fighting an infection. However, sometimes, these messages that say “help me, attack” are not good when they are telling the immune system to attack normal tissues and normal cells. Therefore although this signals recognizing mechanism is quite amazing and complex, unfortunately it can also make mistakes. Mistakes refer to tissue or cells in the body that should be left alone and instead get attacked by the immune system causing an autoimmune disease; autoimmune because our own immune system is attacking normal cells - it made a mistake.

When normal tissue or cells are attacked by the immune system their function gets compromised, and after some time the immune system will prevent their normal function, by causing damage to the tissue or cells that have crucial roles in the body. This disease of the immune system is caused by making mistakes/errors in signal recognition or interpretation. There are more than 80 autoimmune diseases. Around 5% of the word population suffers from one of these diseases, and if immune mediated diseases are included, like allergies and asthma, where the immune system is overactive, then between 15% and 20% of the world population is affected.

The good thing about the immune system is that even after making mistakes; it tries to regulate itself, making it a balanced system, with immune cells that are destroying healthy cells or tissue and other immune cells that are trying to repair the damage that is done. The latter are regulating the inflammation, and if they are in balance, the body will be healthy, with a healthy immune system.

When this balance is disrupted, the body needs an external solution, and this is when we try to repair the unbalance therapeutically. For the last 50 years, the only solution to treat these types of diseases was to use immunosuppressors. These treatments were able to block the function of the immune system, preventing it from working at all. This is extremely dangerous, since it prevents the immune system to protect us from infections.

In the last few years, with the available information on how the signals and pathways of the immune system work, it is possible to understand how the system is supposed to behave and how the balance is kept in the immune system. These allowed the production of new drugs that create signals and messages for the immune system to read in the body or even stimulate the immune system to read signals that are already there and it was unable to read before. By doing this it is possible to restore the balance of the immune system without the use of very dangerous immunosuppressors.

So by achieving the balance of the immune system we will not only correct mistakes it was causing, but also allow the immune system to do its job of protecting us.