A Primer on Autoimmune Diseases

Manila Bulletin, January 17, 2017 | Go to article overview

A Primer on Autoimmune Diseases


By Eduardo Gonzales, MD

I came across a magazine article on autoimmune diseases, but it was short and insufficient to make me understand the nature of these diseases. Can you elaborate on this topic in your column? --manila_sp@gmail.com

The autoimmune diseases are a protean group of more than 80 disorders that affect women more than men. Most occur rarely, but taken together, they afflict millions all over the world.

An immune disease arises when the agents or cells of the body's immune system, which are supposed to defend the body against invading or foreign microorganisms and substances, attack and damage the body's own normal tissues and cells.

What our immune system does

Our body is able to protect itself from disease-causing microorganisms and other harmful substances because of the presence of several defense systems. The most powerful of these is the immune system, which consists of an army of cells that is able to recognize and destroy foreign microorganisms and toxic substances that enter our body.

The soldiers of our immune system are cells known as lymphocytes. There are two types of lymphocytes (T and B) and each type has several subtypes. The types and subtypes of lymphocytes differ functionally but they work together to rid our body of foreign invaders. Lymphocytes are white blood cells that are produced in the bone marrow. They are trained to defend our body either in the bone marrow or the thymus as they mature. When mature, they leave the bone marrow and thymus and patrol the body. In the process, by a variety of means, they attack and destroy any foreign microorganism or substance they encounter.

What goes wrong in autoimmune diseases?

One thing remarkable about lymphocytes is that they are able to differentiate self from non-self. Thus, they recognize our body's own cells and tissues and do not attack them.

Sometimes, however, things go awry. The lymphocytes lose their ability to recognize self from non-self, begin to attack the body's own normal tissues and cells--much like an army turning against its own people--and give rise to an autoimmune disease. …

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