Monday, 6 February 2012

Take a Risk, Get Dirty- Your Army's Got Your Back!

WARNING! ATTENTION! This post contains BAD pottymouth language and may be offensive. But, in the theme of today’s post- take a risk, don’t be a “*ussy” and learn about the mini artillery you harbor in your body in the strongest, most offensive way possible. (For this to make sense- watch the YouTube clip first or later or whenever)

Did you know that a mini-army circulating in your blood stream and between your tissues/organs/vascular systems runs rampant against rascal virus/bacteria/parasite enemies in a very strategic, almost unimaginably organized manner?

Conveniently, a news post I read this morning from SmartPlanet, featured the development of “unmanned drones” that are completely armed and run by computers. Unable to contain my innate science inclinations, the idea of robots independently carrying out missions to areas of concerning threats immediately spurred my knowledge of immune cells that scavenge out areas of imposing threats and are on a mission to protect their host or in keeping with the theme of drones- their homeland. 

It’s bizarre that I’ve centred this post about the immune system and its components around the theme of artillery, armies, drones etc. when I have little to no expertise or understanding of the military and its perplexing hierarchy of militants, medals, and machinery. Please forgive me if you’re a more informed citizen in such things and if I’ve completely butchered the meaning or value of the various arms and levels of honor.
Back to your badass mini army of defense against pathogens... Your first line of defense against any pathogen: bacteria, fungi, virus, parasite etc. are your natural barriers. Your skin and mucous linings protect you all day long, much like cement barricades shielding borders and quarantined zones. Unfortunately, sometimes the enemy has bigger guns and bullies their way across protective barricades. Sometimes the tight seals or junctions that hold your skin or mucosal lining cells together to form a barrier get loose from tares or cuts and an open invitation for pathogens gets created. Sometimes those sneaky buggers carry a protein/receptor/antenna-like structure on their surface that perfectly fits with something similarly protruding from your cells, latches on and creates a type of nasty handshake, where unintentionally and naively, your nice little cell welcomes in the sneaky pathogen right across the barrier. Almost like a covert operation, most pathogens aim to enter enemy territory, get done what needs to be done, and without revealing themselves, escape back to where they came from or to another covert mission. Once across the first line, pathogens need to escape the innate immune system. This includes your first line of militants. Once a cell is infected with a pathogen, the infected cell is under stress and releases SOS signals to neighboring cells and out in to the environment it resides. These SOS signals are known as cytokines or chemokines. The SOS signals can activate cells called Natural Killer (NK) cells and as their name implies- they aim to kill, but naturally :) Actually, NK cells act most like remotely operated attack drones, once activated or signalled to attack, they launch an assault of mass proportion of missiles (granules) against the infected cell. NK cells are fancy, they kill virus-infected cells AND can target and kill cancer cells. Unfortunately, they have no specific attack skills and must be monitored and kept in check. Other members of your mini army include the dendritic cells, aka DCs. 

DCs have long extending arms, much like a badass octopus, scope out areas that may have been breached and under attack, sample potential evidence, looking for evidence to report back to (here is where I may butcher the hierarchal order of command) the operating captain who can then report to the major, then to the colonel, and up to the general. In sci terms, if the DCs and other cells like macrophages sense something fishy, they will activate and signal to the higher chain of defense command known as the adaptive immune system to elicit a specific retaliation against the invading pathogen. I mention specific retaliation because this is a key component to this part of the immune system. If the DC or other innate immunity cell samples evidence from an invading pathogen, this evidence is typically a signature of the pathogen and can be passed on to cells of the adaptive immune system for a direct attack against pathogens carrying the specific signature. Cells that are made from your bone marrow known as B cells, work together with cells that come from your thymus known as T cells, and with presentation of this specific signature from cells of the innate immune system, B cells will make antibodies that are specific against the pathogen’s signature. Pretty cool right? It’s like an army discovering the weak point (there must be some military term for this) in the enemy and designing specific artillery to target and destroy the weak point. What’s even more amazing is that your adaptive immune cells that are designed to specifically target a pathogen signature will retain memory of this signature and if you’re ever infected again from the same pathogen, it is likely that this specific artillery of cells and antibodies created the first time around will target the repeat offender. The concept of immune memory is the mechanism underlying vaccination. When you’re given a vaccination, you are given a formulation of one or many signatures from that particular pathogen (virus, bacteria, parasite etc.) that will instigate your immune system to produce antibodies against the signatures. Your immune system gets primed, exposed and ready to face the particular pathogen, should you ever come in to contact for real with the enemy. The importance of vaccination for the idea of “herd immunity” and the controversy surrounding potential side effects of vaccination are issues to be discussed in another upcoming post.  

For now, please enjoy the George Carlin clip below that fits right in with how we all should feel about our immune systems. I think we underestimate its power and undervalue its worth, but George Carlin most definitely has the right attitude. He’s abrasive yes, but is correct in reinforcing the idea of getting dirty and exposing yourself to germs. Natural immunity, getting both cellular and humoral immunity, where your body has attack cells and produces antibodies against pathogens, is the best immune artillery you can build. I’m not suggesting poor hygiene or touching your face more than often during flu season, but try to avoid the fear of germs.  Contagion may be upon us one day, but apparently so may be an Apocalypse or even worse- Global Warming…but until these disasters are upon us, let’s just try to wash our hands and play nice, k?

1 comment:

  1. Carlin stlll rocks, RIP George! No need to be apologetic, you present cool scientific insights in a fun way. And I love anyone who uses alliteration — militants, medals and machinery! Now bring on those drones, I think I'm ready for them! :)