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Immunology

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Immunology is a broad branch of biomedical science that covers the study of all aspects of the immune system in all organisms. It deals with, among other things, the physiological functioning of the immune system in states of both health and disease; malfunctions of the immune system in immunological disorders (autoimmune diseases, hypersensitivities, immune deficiency, allograft rejection); the physical, chemical and physiological characteristics of the components of the immune system in vitro, in situ, and in vivo. Immunology has various applications in several disciplines of science, and as such is further divided.

The human immune system has two functional branches that work together. Humoral immunity, principally mediated by B-lymphocytes produces antibodies (also known as immunoglobulins, some of which are receptors triggered by antigens in the body. Antibodies contribute to immunity by preventing pathogens from entering or damaging cells by binding to them; by tagging foreign substances to be recognized by the cell-mediated cell; and by triggering pathogen destruction by stimulating other immune responses such as the complement pathway. Vaccination works by introducing an antigen into the body in sufficient amounts to trigger specific immunoglobulin production; the antigen is introduced in a form that has been rendered relatively harmless.

The other branch is cell-mediated immunity which destroys, digests and expels foreign antigens through the activity of "killer cells" such as T8 lymphocytes and macrophages.

There is extensive chemical communications betwee the branches, and to other parts of the body

Histological examination of the immune system

Even before the concept of immunity (from immunis, Latin for "exempt") was developed, numerous early physicians characterised organs that would later prove to be part of the immune system. The key organs of the immune system are thymus, spleen, bone marrow, lymph vessels, lymph nodes and secondary lymphatic tissues such as tonsils, adenoids, and skin. Two major organs, the thymus and spleen, are examined histologically only post-mortem during autopsy. However some lymph nodes and secondary lymphatic tissues can be surgically excised for examination while patients are still alive.

Many components of the immune system are actually cellular in nature and not associated with any specific organ but rather are embedded or circulating in various tissues located throughout the body.

Classical immunology

Classical immunology ties in with the fields of epidemiology, infectious disease and medicine. It studies the relationship between the body systems, pathogens, and immunity. The earliest written mention of immunity can be traced back to the plague of Athens in 430 BCE. Thucydides noted that people who had recovered from a previous bout of the disease could nurse the sick without contracting the illness a second time. Many other ancient societies have references to this phenomenon, but it was not until the 19th and 20th centuries before the concept developed into scientific theory.

The study of the molecular and cellular components that comprise the immune system, including their function and interaction, is the central science of immunology. The immune system has been divided into a more primitive innate immune system, and acquired or adaptive immune system of vertebrates, the latter of which is further divided into humoral and cellular components.

The humoral (antibody) response is defined as the interaction between antibodies and antigens. Antibodies are specific proteins released from a certain class of immune cells (B lymphocytes). Antigens are defined as anything that elicits generation of antibodies, hence they are Antibody Generators. Immunology itself rests on an understanding of the properties of these two biological entities. However, equally important is the cellular response, which can not only kill infected cells in its own right, but is also crucial in controlling the antibody response. Put simply, both systems are highly interdependent.

In the 21st century, immunology has broadened its horizons with much research being performed in the more specialized niches of immunology. This includes the immunological function of cells, organs and systems not normally associated with the immune system, as well as the function of the immune system outside classical models of immunity.

Clinical immunology

Clinical immunology is the study of diseases caused by the immune system and diseases of the immune system from a medical perspective.

Many diseases caused by the immune system fall into two broad categories: immunodeficiency, in which parts of the immune system fail to provide an adequate response (examples include chronic granulomatous disease), and autoimmunity, in which the immune system attacks its own host's body (examples include systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto's disease and myasthenia gravis). Other immune system disorders include different hypersensitivities, in which the system responds inappropriately to harmless compounds (asthma and allergies) or responds too intensely.

The most well-known disease that affects the immune system itself is AIDS, caused by HIV. AIDS is an immunodeficiency characterized by the lack of CD4+ ("helper") T cells and macrophages, which are destroyed by HIV.

Clinical immunologists also study ways to prevent transplant rejection, in which the immune system attempts to destroy allografts or xenografts.

Immunotherapy

See main article Immunotherapy

The use of immune system components to treat a disease or disorder is known as immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is most commonly used in the context of the treatment of cancers together with chemotherapy (drugs) and radiotherapy (radiation). However, immunotherapy is also often used in the immunosuppressed (such as HIV patients) and people suffering from other immune deficiencies or autoimmune diseases.

Diagnostic immunology

The specificity of the bond between antibody and antigen has made it an excellent tool in the detection of substances in a variety of diagnostic techniques. Antibodies specific for a desired antigen can be conjugated with a radiolabel, fluorescent label, or color-forming enzyme and are used as a "probe" to detect it.

Well known applications of this include immunoblotting, ELISA and immunohistochemical staining of microscope slides. The speed, accuracy and simplicity of such tests has led to the development of rapid techniques for the diagnosis of disease, microbes and even illegal drugs in vivo (of course tests conducted in a closed environment have a higher degree of accuracy). Such testing is also used to distinguish compatible blood types.

Evolutionary immunology

Study of the immune system in extant and extinct species is capable of giving us a key understanding of the evolution of species and the immune system.

A development of complexity of the immune system can be seen from simple phagocytotic protection of single celled organisms, to circulating antimicrobial peptides in insects to lymphoid organs in vertebrates. Of course, like much of evolutionary observation, these physical properties are often seen from the anthropocentric aspect. It should be recognised, that every organism living today has an immune system absolutely capable of protecting it from most forms of harm; those organisms that did not adapt their immune systems to external threats are no longer around to be observed.

Insects and other arthropods, while not possessing true adaptive immunity, show highly evolved systems of innate immunity, and are additionally protected from external injury (and exposure to pathogens) by their chitinous shells.

See also

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