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Immunity

The importance of our immune system

By William E. Paul, MD
12-minute read
Audio available
Immunity : The importance of our immune system by William E. Paul, MD

Immunity (2015) is a guide to that great defender of the human body, otherwise known as the immune system. It gives a detailed explanation of how immune responses defend us against all manner of diseases, even cancers, and how a dysfunctional immune system can spell big trouble.

  • Physicians, chemists and biologists
  • Anyone who has ever been sick
  • Students of medicine

William E. Paul, MD, was chief of the Laboratory of Immunology at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, one of the National Institutes of Health. He also served as president of the American Association of Immunologists.

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Immunity

The importance of our immune system

By William E. Paul, MD
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Immunity : The importance of our immune system by William E. Paul, MD
Synopsis

Immunity (2015) is a guide to that great defender of the human body, otherwise known as the immune system. It gives a detailed explanation of how immune responses defend us against all manner of diseases, even cancers, and how a dysfunctional immune system can spell big trouble.

Key idea 1 of 7

The immune system is the key to fighting off diseases, but it also has a dangerous side.

If asked, most people would say your immune system is a good thing, right? After all, the human immune system, especially when aided by medicine, is what defends us against viruses, bacteria and diseases of all types. However, this power doesn’t come without a hook: if your immune response is somehow off, it can devastate your body, producing life-threatening illnesses.

The body must strike a fine balance. To drive this point home, let’s look at a case famous among immunologists.

For millennia, the virus that causes smallpox plagued humankind. It killed hundreds of millions of people, until, on May 8th, 1980, the World Health Organization declared smallpox a thing of the past.

But how was it vanquished?

By boosting the immune system through vaccination, a technique discovered by an eighteenth-century English physician named Edward Jenner. He observed that milkmaids often contracted the less-serious cowpox, and that, upon recovery, they were immune to smallpox. Jenner knew that the two viruses were closely related and he hypothesized that intentionally exposing humans to cowpox could protect them from smallpox.

Thus the birth of vaccination, the activation of an immune response in our bodies that produces virus-killing cells. As a result of this discovery, the WHO launched a smallpox-eradication campaign in 1967 that used extensive vaccination with incredible success.

But the same immune response that vaccinations prompt can also go horribly wrong.

Indeed, diabetes is the result of a malfunctioning immune system. Usually the tissue of a patient is not the target of immune responses; however, the immune system of people with type 1 diabetes mellitus starts attacking the body itself. As a result, virus-killing cells called T cells break down the body’s own insulin-producing cells, which play an instrumental role in regulating blood-sugar levels. The result of this immune dysfunction is diabetes, a serious and even life-threatening illness.

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