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The Immune System

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All living organisms, especially animals, have to protect themselves from external, harmful viruses and germs. Moreover, unhealthy body cells need resistance for there is the possibility of them becoming infectious. In the process of development there are three different layers of defense. The first layer of defense is the skin, membranes, and different kinds of secretions. The second layer of defense are the white blood cells, the proteins that defend small cell organisms and respond to inflammation. These are two unspecific defenses because they defend without differentiating the germs. The second layer of defense is activated by chemical signals; phagocytes and proteins that defend small cell organisms both attack the germs that have survived the first layer of defense. Increased inflammation in the body is a sign of the engagement of the second layered defense.

The third layer of defense is an innate defense of the immune system. The immune system is a network of cell tissues and organs that work together to defend the body against attacks by foreign invaders. These are primarily microbes (germs)-tiny, infection-causing organisms such as bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi. This defense is a specific defense because it produce different kinds of antidotes depending upon various cause of infections. The immune system is amazingly complex. It can recognize and remember millions of different enemies, and it can produce secretions and cells to match up with and wipe out each one of them.

The key to a healthy immune system is its remarkable ability to distinguish between the body’s own cells (self) and foreign cells (non-self).The body’s immune defenses normally coexist peacefully with cells that carry distinctive self-marker molecules. But when immune defenders encounter cells or organisms carrying markers that say foreign, they quickly launch an attack. Anything that can trigger this immune response is called an antigen. An antigen can be a microbe such as a virus, or even a part of microbe.

Tissues or cells from another person (except an identical twin) also carry nonself markers and act as antigens. This explain why tissue transplant may be rejected. In an abnormal situations, the immune system can mistake self for nonself and launch an attack against the body’s own cells or tissues. The result is called an autoimmune disease. Some forms of arthritis and diabetes are autoimmune diseases.

The Structure of the Immune System

The organs of the immune system are positioned throughout the body. They are called lymphoid organs because they are home to lymphocytes, small white blood cells that are the key players in the immune system. Bone marrow, the soft tissue in the hollow center of bones, is the ultimate source of all blood cells, including white blood cells destined to become immune cells. The thymus is an organ that lies behind the breastbone; lymphocytes known as T lymphocytes, or just T cells, mature in the thymus.

Lymphocytes can travel throughout the body using the blood vessels. The cells can also travel through a system of lymphatic vessels that closely parallels the body’s veins and arteries. Cells and fluids are exchanged between blood and lymphatic vessels, enabling the lymphatic system to monitor the body for invading microbes. The lymphatic vessels carry lymph, a clear fluid that bathes the body’s tissues. Small, bean-shaped lymph nodes are laced along the lymphatic vessels, with clusters in the neck, armpits, abdomen, and groin. Each lymph node contains specialized compartments where immune cells congregate, and where they can encounter antigens.

Immune cells and foreign particles enter the lymph nodes via incoming lymphatic vessels or the lymph nodes’ tiny blood vessels. All lymphocytes exit lymph nodes through outgoing lymphatic vessels. Once in the bloodstream, they are transported to tissues throughout the body. They patrol everywhere for foreign antigens, then gradually drift back into the lymphatic system, to begin the cycle all over again.

The spleen is a flattened organ at the upper left of the abdomen. Like the lymph nodes, the spleen contains specialized compartments where immune cells gather and work, and serves as a meeting ground where immune defenses confront antigens.

Immune Cells and Their Products

The immune system stockpiles a huge arsenal of cells, not only lymphocytes but also cell-devouring phagocytes and their relatives. Some immune cells take on all comers, while others are trained on highly specific targets. To work effectively, most immune cells need the cooperation of their comrades. Sometimes immune cells communicate by direct physical contact, sometimes by releasing chemical messengers.

The immune system stores just a few of each kind of the different cells needed to recognize millions of possible enemies. When an antigen appears, those few matching cells multiply into a full-scale army. After their job is done, they fade away, leaving sentries behind to watch for future attacks.

All immune cells begin as immature stem cells in the bone marrow. They respond to different cytokines and other signals to grow into specific immune cell types, such as T cells, B cells, or phagocytes.

B Lymphocytes

B cells and T cells are the main types of lymphocytes. B cells work chiefly by secreting substances called antibodies into the body’s fluids. Antibodies ambush antigens


circulating the bloodstream. They are powerless, however, to penetrate cells. The job of attacking target cells—either cells that have been infected by viruses or cells that have been distorted by cancer—is left to T cells or other immune cells. (Figure 22)

Each B cell is programmed to make one specific antibody. For example, one B cell will make an antibody that blocks a virus that causes the common cold, while another produces an antibody that attacks a bacterium that causes pneumonia. When a B cell encounters its triggering antigen, it gives rise to many large cells known as plasma cells. Every plasma cell is essentially a factory for producing an antibody. Each of the plasma cells descended from a given B cell manufactures millions of identical antibody molecules and pours them into the bloodstream.

An antigen matches an antibody much as a key matches a lock. Some match exactly; others fit more like a skeleton key. But whenever antigen and antibody interlock, the antibody marks the antigen for destruction.

T Cells

Unlike B cells, T cells do not recognize free-floating antigens. Rather, their surfaces contain specialized antibody-like receptors that see fragments of antigens on the surfaces of infected or cancerous cells. T cells contribute to immune defenses in two major ways: some direct and regulate immune responses; others directly attack infected or cancerous cells. Helper T cells, or Th cells, coordinate immune responses by communicating with other cells. Some stimulate nearby B cells to produce antibody, others call in microbe-gobbling cells called phagocytes,still others activate other T cells.

Killer T cells (also called cytotoxic T lymphocytes or CTLs) perform a different function. These cells directly attack other cells carrying certain foreign or abnormal molecules on their surfaces. CTLs are especially useful for attacking viruses because viruses often hide from other parts of the immune system while they grow inside infected cells. CTLs recognize small fragments of these viruses peeking out from the cell membrane and launch an attack to kill the cell.

Natural killer (NK) cells are another kind of lethal white cell, or lymphocyte. Like killer T cells, NK cells are armed with granules filled with potent chemicals. Unlike killer T, NK cells have potential to recognize and attacks many types of foreign cells. Both kinds of killer cells slay on contact. The deadly assassins bind to their targets, aim their weapons, and then deliver a lethal burst of chemicals.

Phagocytes and Their Relatives

Phagocytes are large white cells that can swallow and digest microbes and other foreign particles. Monocytes are phagocytes that circulate in the blood. When monocytes migrate into tissues, they develop into macrophages. Specialized types of macrophages can be found in many organs, including lungs, kidneys, brain, and liver. Macrophages play many roles. As scavengers, they rid the body of worn-out cells and other debris. They display bits of foreign antigen in a way that draws the attention of matching lymphocytes. And they churn out an amazing variety of powerful chemical signals, known as monokines, which are vital to the immune responses. (Figure 23).

Granulocytes are another kind of immune cell. They contain granules filled with potent chemicals, which allow the granulocytes to destroy microorganisms. Some of these chemicals, such as histamine, also contribute to inflammation and allergy.

One type of granulocyte, the neutrophil, is also a phagocyte; it uses its prepackaged chemicals to break down the microbes it ingests. Eosinophils and basophils are granulocytes that degranulate, spraying their chemicals onto harmful cells or microbes nearby.

Platelets, too, contain granules. In addition to promoting blood clotting and wound repair, platelets activate some of the immune defenses.


Components of the immune system communicate with one another by exchanging chemical messengers called cytokines. These proteins are secreted by cells and act on other cells to coordinate an appropriate immune response. For instance, cytokines help to produce T cells by the immune system and also turns certain immune cells on and off. These chemically attract specific cell types and help to call other immune cells to the damaged site.

Immunity: Natural and Acquired

Long ago, physicians realized that people who had recovered from the plague would never get it again—they had acquired immunity. This is because some of the activated T and B cells become memory cells. The next time an individual meets up with the same antigen, the immune system is set to demolish it. Immunity can be strong or weak, short-lived or long-lasting, depending on the type of antigen, the amount of antigen, and the route by which it enters the body. Immunity can also be influenced by inherited genes. When faced with the same antigen, some individuals will respond forcefully, others feebly, and some not at all.

An immune response can be sparked not only by infection but also by immunization with vaccines. Vaccines contain microorganisms—or parts of microorganisms—that have been treated so they can provoke an immune response but not full-blown disease. Immunity can also be transferred from one individual to another by injections of serum rich in antibodies against a particular microbe (antiserum). For example, immune serum is sometimes given to protect travelers to countries where hepatitis A is widespread. Such passive immunity typically lasts only a few weeks or months.

Infants are born with weak immune responses but are protected for the first few months of life by antibodies received from their mothers before birth. Babies who are nursed can also receive some antibodies from breast milk that help to protect their digestive tracts.

Disorders of the Immune System

Immune system also have disorder sometimes like other system of the body. We will discuss some from many types of disorders.

Allergic Diseases

The most common types of allergic diseases occur when the immune system responds to a false alarm. In an allergic person, a normally harmless material such as grass pollen or house dust is mistaken for a threat and attacked. Allergies such as pollen allergy are related to the antibody known as IgE. Like other antibodies, each IgE antibody is specific; one acts against oak pollen, another against ragweed.

Autoimmune Diseases

Sometimes the immune system’s recognition apparatus breaks down, and the body begins to manufacture T cells and antibodies directed against its own cells and organs. Misguided T cells and autoantibodies, as they are known, contribute to many diseases. For instance, T cells that attack pancreas cells contribute to diabetes, while an autoantibody known as rheumatoid factor is common in people with rheumatoid arthritis. People with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) have antibodies to many types of their own cells and cell components.

No one knows exactly what causes an autoimmune disease, but multiple factors are likely to be involved. These include elements in the environment, such as viruses, certain drugs, and sunlight, all of which may damage or alter normal body cells. Hormones are suspected of playing a role, since most autoimmune diseases are far more common in women than in men.

Immunodeficiency Disorders

When the immune system is missing one or more of its components, the result is an immunodeficiency disorder. Immunodeficiency disorders can be inherited, acquired through infection, or produced unintentionally by drugs such as those used to treat people with cancer or those who have received transplants. Temporary immune deficiencies can develop in the wake of common virus infections, including influenza, infectious mononucleosis, and measles. Immune responses can also be depressed by blood transfusions, surgery, malnutrition, smoking, and stress.

Some children are born with poorly functioning immune systems. Some have flaws in the B cell system and cannot produce antibodies. Others, whose thymus is either missing or small and abnormal, lack T cells. Very rarely, infants are born lacking all of the major immune defenses.

AIDS is an immunodeficiency disorder caused by a virus (HIV) that infects immune cells. HIV can destroy or disable vital T cells, paving the way for a variety of immunologic shortcomings. HIV also can hide out for long periods in immune cells. As the immune defenses falter, a person with AIDS falls prey to unusual, often life-threatening infections and rare cancers.

Cancers of the Immune System

The cells of the immune system, like other cells, can grow uncontrollably, resulting in cancer. Leukemias are caused by the proliferation of white blood cells, or leukocytes. The uncontrolled growth of antibody-producing plasma cells can lead to multiple myeloma.

Therefore, the immune system is an important and indispensable system for our body. Scientists have learned much about the immune system but certain areas remain unknown and scientists continue to focus their studies on these areas. New technologies for identifying individual immune cells are now aiding scientists to quickly determine which targets trigger immune responses. Improvements in microscopy are permitting the first-ever observations of B cells, T cells, and other cells as they interact within lymph nodes and other body tissues. The combination of new technology and expanded genetic information will undoubtedly teach us even more about how the body protects itself from disease.