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Autoimmune Disorders (Notes from Dr. Lois Banke, Parish Nurse)  
      In order to understand autoimmune disorders it is important to have some background information about the immune system in the human body.  The immune system is a network of cells in our body that work together to defend it against foreign cells such as bacteria.  Our bodies provide ideal environments
for many different kinds of enemies (bacteria) to grow and attack normal cells.  The immune system is very complex.  It can recognize and remember millions of different enemies.  It accomplishes these tasks through the use of an elaborate communications network made up of millions and millions of cells which are organized into sets and subsets that can pass information back and forth in response to an infection in
the same manner as a swarm of bees around a hive pass information to one another.
Once the immune cells receive a message they become activated and begin to produce powerful chemicals.  These substances allow the cells to regulate their own growth and behavior, enlist other immune cells and even send cells to trouble spots throughout the body.  Newly produced cells are matched up with and wipe out enemy cells.
In the event that the immune system attacks the wrong target, it can cause a number of disorders including allergic diseases and arthritis.  At times the immune system responds to a false alarm and the result is an allergic disease.  In an allergic person, a normally harmless material such as grass pollen, food particles, mold or house dust mites are mistaken as a threat and the immune system attacks. 
It is possible for the immune systemís recognition apparatus to break down causing the body to manufacture T cells and autoantibodies directed against its own cells and tissues.  The result is the destruction of healthy cells and tissues possibly leaving the personís body unable to perform important functions. Misguided T cells may attack cells in the pancreas and so contribute to a form of diabetes.  Autoantibodies are found in individuals who have rheumatoid arthritis.  Individuals with lupus erythematosus have antibodies which attach their own cells and can cause a severe rash, kidney inflammation and disorders in other organs.
At this point the exact cause of autoimmune diseases is unknown.  Elements in the environment such as viruses, certain drugs and sunlight, all of which damage normal body cells are likely to be involved.  Hormones are also suspected to play a role because autoimmune diseases seem to be more common in women than in men.  Heredity seems to play a role in these illnesses as well.
In the event that the immune system is missing one or more of its parts, the result is an immune deficiency disorder which in turn causes a person to be vulnerable to a variety of infections.  These disorders may be inherited, acquired through an infection or produced as a side effect by drugs.  Temporary immune deficiencies may develop following common virus infections such as influenza, mononucleosis, and measles.  Immune responses within the body can also be depressed by blood transfusions, surgery, malnutrition, smoking or stress.  Some infants are born with poorly functioning immune systems.  AIDS is an immune deficiency disorder causes by a virus that infects immune cells.
Scientists have learned a great deal about the bodyís immune system and they continue to study how the body launches attacks that destroy invading organisms, infected cells and tumors and yet ignore healthy cells.  New technologies are allowing scientists to understand what targets are triggering an immune response.  Improved microscopes are also aiding in making appropriate diagnoses.
Source:  National Institutes of Health

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