Tuesday, 11 January 2011

If immune systems could talk

Throughout our lives, we are exposed to a variety of pathogens. These exposures result in immune memory. A one-year-old gets every cold that comes her way; her parents are likely to be immune to many of these viruses and will therefore not get sick every time. Disorders of the immune system from allergies to multiple sclerosis occur when the immune system misidentifies something normal as being abnormal and therefore attacks it. Each immune disorder should theoretically each have a set of diagnostic antibodies, antibodies which recognize the thing that they shouldn't.

Many other diseases, such as cancers and neurodegenerative diseases, cause physiological changes that are recognized by the immune system. Alzheimer's disease, while not a disease of the immune system, is associated with the accumulation of antibodies which recognize the brain damage. These diseases should also have a set of diagnostic antibodies. Recently, a group in Florida has described a new way to look for antibodies in patient blood samples. They were able to find antibodies in both human Alzheimer's disease and in a mouse model of multiple sclerosis that were abnormal and therefore potentially diagnostic.

Using antibodies to detect these diseases could be very useful. Often, the detection and diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases is difficult. MRI scans are expensive. Taking blood is not. Diagnosis of these diseases through antibody screening of blood samples could provide a cheap and reliable alternative to MRI scans. For diseases such as cancers, early detection is the key to prevention. If antibodies can be detected early enough, many cancers could be treated early enough to prevent them from spreading.

Wisdom comes with experience. Many of our experiences have been witnessed by our wizened immune systems. Perhaps we now have a way to let them talk.

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