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Evolution and the Immune System

Evolution and the Immune System

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Published by Sean Pitman, MD
The evolution of the immune system - potential and limitations
The evolution of the immune system - potential and limitations

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Published by: Sean Pitman, MD on May 09, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Evolution and the ImmuneSystem
Sean D. Pitman M.D.September 2006 
Table of Contents
Everyone has experienced sickness atone time or another in his or her life.
However, most people get better and often do not get that same “bug” again. Why isthis? There are literally millions of "bugs" and other things in our everyday environmentthat can make us sick. Why then do we generally remain so healthy? The reason isbecause most of us have a highly effective immune system. A healthy immune systemis very good at searching out and killing foreign invaders that can make the body sick.However, if the immune system is not functioning well, there will certainly be a lot of problems.As an example of this, consider the famous HIV virus (Human ImmunodeficiencyVirus). This virus causes the disease known as AIDS (Acquired Immune DeficiencySyndrome). A person with AIDS has a very weakened immune system. Because of alack of immunity, infections plague theAIDS victim that do not normally infecthumans. Interestingly enough, it is not theHIV virus itself that makes these peoplesick. The HIV virus specifically attacksimmune cells called T-helper cells (click onthe video illustration - i.e., the black box).When these cells are lost in high enoughnumbers, the immune system starts toshut down. The symptoms of AIDS are the result of a loss of immunity. With the loss of immunity, a host of infectious processes start to overwhelm the body.
Eventually, theseinfections kill their unfortunate host.
Now that we understand just how important it is to recognize bad "bugs", how do our bodies become capable of recognizing the millions and billions and even trillions of different arrangements of things that can make us sick?
Well, it is through a Darwinian-style selection process where the fittest survive andthe weakest die. In our bodies we have cells that are specialized immune cells called T-cells. They go to "school" to learn the difference between "self" and "non-self".Certainly one would not want his/her own immune system to attack his/her own body!Sometimes this does happen and it is referred to as an autoimmune disease. However,normally, the T-cells are educated in a very tough school so that they do not attackone's own body or "self".
But how exactly are they trained to recognize the differencebetween self and non-self?Well, T-cells are capable of being able to tell the differencebetween certain molecules(antigens) that are presented(by MHC class I molecules) onthe surfaces of all "self" cells inthe body that they are supposedto protect compared to allforeign or "abnormal" antigensthat are associated with outsideinvaders or internal diseaseprocesses (like cancer). For 

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