Immune system

A collection of cells and proteins that works to protect the body from harmful microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. It also plays a role in the control of cancer and is responsible for the phenomena of allergy, hypersensitivity, and rejection after transplant surgery. The term innate immunity is given to the protection that we are born with, such as the skin and the mucous membranes that line the mouth, nose, throat, intestines, and vagina. It also includes antibodies, or immunoglobulins (protective proteins), that have been passed to the child from the mother. If microorganisms penetrate these defences, they encounter “cell-devouring” white blood cells called phagocytes, and other types of white cells, such as natural cellkilling (cytotoxic) cells. Microorganisms may also meet naturally produced substances (such as interferon) or a group of blood proteins called the complement system, which act to destroy the invading microorganisms. The 2nd part of the immune system, adaptive immunity, comes into play when the body encounters organisms that overcome the innate defences. The adaptive immune system responds specifically to each type of invading organism, and retains a memory of the invader so that defences can be rallied instantly in the future. The adaptive immune system first must recognize part of an invading organism or tumour cell as an antigen (a protein that is foreign to the body). One of 2 types of response – humoral or cellular – is then mounted against the antigen. Humoral immunity is important in the defence against bacteria. After a complex recognition process, certain B- lymphocytes multiply and produce vast numbers of antibodies that bind to antigens. The organisms bearing the antigens are then engulfed by phagocytes. Binding of antibody and antigen may activate the complement system, which increases the efficiency of the phagocytes. Cellular immunity is particularly important in the defence against viruses, some types of parasites that hide within cells, and, possibly, cancer cells. It involves 2 types of T-lymphocyte: helper cells, which play a role in the recognition of antigens and activate the killer cells (the 2nd type of T-lymphocyte), which destroy the cells that have been invaded. Disorders of the immune system include immunodeficiency disorders and allergy, in which the immune system has an inappropriate response to usually innocuous antigens such as pollen. In certain circumstances, such as after tissue transplants, immunosuppressant drugs are used to suppress the immune system and thus prevent rejection of the donor tissue as a foreign organism.


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