Autoimmune Diseases – when our body attacks itself

How does immunity work?

When we feel ill, our body is usually fighting off germs (the medical community call them pathogens). Our body does this in many different ways. Our immune system is mostly made up of white blood cells. These cells can kill pathogens by eating them, injecting them with materials that kill them or by tagging them with antibodies. These antibodies act like little flags that notify the other white blood cells that there is a pathogen in the blood and essentially marks them as targets.

What is autoimmunity?

These antibodies are great for letting other white blood cells know where the dangers are in the body, but sometimes our antibodies can get confused and end up tagging normal parts of our own body! This is how type 1 diabetes occurs. Our cells start to attack the pancreas until it doesn’t work anymore causing our blood sugar to become unregulated. When our antibodies start to attack our own body, we call them auto-antibodies. Autoimmunity is currently treated by reducing our immune system's strength (immunosuppressant therapy).

Whilst we know what happens during autoimmunity, we largely don’t know what causes our antibodies to turn against us. Having said that, recent research has given us a clue as to what might be causing some autoimmune diseases.

Macrophage - a white blood cell that 'eats' pathogens

What are commensal microbes?

Commensal microbes are essentially the ‘good’ bacteria that you find in yogurts and health drinks. These help you with digestion and can actually boost your immune system.

So what was discovered?

Blood was taken from people who have a known autoimmune disease and their antibodies were tested. It was found that these patients had antibodies that were programmed to target the good commensal bacteria. It was also found that the antibodies that attacked the good bacteria also cross reacted with human tissue and then ended up attacking healthy cells.

What does this mean/where to from here?

This research has shown that one of the causes of autoimmune diseases may be due to a bad relationship between certain people’s immune system and the ‘good’ bacteria. Getting rid of the specific type of ‘good’ bacteria that causes the body to make autoantibodies may be a new type of therapy to consider for some autoimmune diseases.


Reference: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmed.2018.00153/full

Journal: Frontiers in Medicine, Volume 5,  May 2018

Authors: Peilin Zhang, Lawrence M. Minardi,  J. Todd Kuenstner, Steven M. Zekan and Rusty Kruzelock

Copyright: Open Access


Jack Grierson

Jack founded the Medical Frontier in 2015 with the idea that breaking medical discoveries should be available and understandable to all, regardless of educational background. He has a Biomedical Sciences degree from St. Georges University Hospital and Masters in Translational Cancer Medicine from Kings College London. Jack has worked in the pharmaceutical industry in the United States and currently runs clinical trials at University College London. He is a member of the Institute of Biomedical Sciences and the Royal Society of Medicine. 

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