In Awe of Our Immune Systems

What is it that gets you through the day? Your first coffee of the morning, a cup of tea? That pastry that you treated yourself to because you were having a rough day at work? Even though these things are nice to have and may give you the illusion of getting you through ‘til bedtime there’s something that we all need that goes beyond any food or drink. That unsung hero that people take for granted and forget exists even when you become ill. Yes, the immune system. In reality, the immune system is made up of a lot of little heroes that all work together to keep you healthy. A brilliant explanation of the immune system can be found on SciShot’s blog because in this post I want to explain why I’m so in awe of this microscopic task force.

I’ve been all for expressing my love of the immune system recently, not least because I’ve sat another exam in it recently but my fascination with this bodily system stemmed from loathing. In A level biology, I had to work tirelessly to untangle a the matts of processes, it was hard work and I remembering sitting with my dad at the dining room table for nearly a whole day, trying to make sense of the infuriatingly intricate processes. Once I had decoded it though, I was able to stand back in astonishment at how beautifully complex it all is. Taking it all in is a challenge and even after taking two third- year degree modules in it, I realise that there is much more to the immune system than we give it credit for. If I’m honest, I’m surprised that it works at all there are that many fail safes! Experts will obviously be able to appreciate its complexity but people who are of a non- scientific background might not even be able to comprehend the reason a cold vanishes over a few weeks.

We have a lot to thank our immune systems for, it works tirelessly every day to ward off bad bugs and make sure that we don’t die every time we step out of the door. Scaling it up, our immune system is that hero that pushes us out of the way of more than a million falling pianos and keeps us balanced on an unsteady rope bridge strung across a chasm of illness. An unbelievable statistic that I came across is that a woman’s handbag harbours 115 times more bacteria than your average toilet seat. Grim. Many of these may not be disease causing bacteria but all it takes is a few deadly cells to invade us and we’re suddenly dangling from the side of that rope bridge looking into the depths of disease.

Some of you may scoff and argue that it can’t be all that dramatic; living without an immune system should be possible, right? Wrong. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you see it), a syndrome called Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) shows us what it’s like to live without an immune system. Even though the reported case of the disorder was reported in the 1950s, you may have heard of bubble boy syndrome because of a boy that suffered with this in the 1980s. The disorder came to the media attention this child, later known as the bubble boy, was born without a working immune system and put in a plastic bubble pumped with filtered air to prevent him encountering any germs. This was after his older brother had died of the same disease and doctors wanted to prevent him suffering the same fate. The boy lived in the bubble for almost 13 years and sadly died following an unsuccessful bone marrow transplant in 1984 that was meant to give him an immune system. Since then we’re lucky that science has advanced so far that children can be treated with gene therapy and lead normal lives but it’s a scary insight into how much of a shield the immune system puts up against the hostile world we live in.

I know that there are lots of immune disorders where the immune system starts to attack us or react badly to things that won’t harm us (allergies) and I’m not ignoring them.  Immune disorders don’t mean that our immune system has suddenly decided that it hates us; it’s just got confused and genuinely thinks that it’s protecting us against something that could cause us harm when actually, we needed those heart cells it destroyed. This is a bit of a contrast to what I’ve said in Happy Helminths but there are loads of different ways to look at immune disorders and why they happen. At the end of the day, some our immune systems will need a reboot and scientists are working hard to discover how to press the restart button on them so that future generations won’t suffer so badly from the rise in allergies and malfunctioning immune systems.

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