Goals For The Future
While researchers have made great gains in understanding immunity, many big questions remain. Future research will need to identify how the immune response is coordinated. Other researchers are studying the immune systems of non-mammals, trying to learn how our immune response evolved. Insects, for instance, lack antibodies, and are protected only by cellular immunity and chemical defenses not known to be present in higher organisms.
Immunologists do not yet know the details behind allergy, where antigens like those from pollen, poison ivy, or certain kinds of food make the body start an uncomfortable, unnecessary, and occasionally life-threatening immune response. Likewise, no one knows exactly why the immune system can suddenly attack the body's tissues—as in autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile diabetes, systemic lupus erythematosus, or multiple sclerosis.
The hunt continues for new vaccines, especially against parasitic organisms like the malaria microbe that trick the immune system by changing their antigens. Some researchers are seeking ways to start an immune response that prevents or kills cancers. A big goal of immunologists is the search for a vaccine for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. HIV knocks out the immune system—causing immunodeficiency—by infecting crucial T lymphocytes. Some immunologists have suggested that the chiefly humoral response raised by conventional vaccines may be unable to stop HIV from getting to lymphocytes, and that a new kind of vaccine that encourages a cellular response may be more effective.
Researchers have shown that transplant rejection is just another kind of immune response, with the immune system attacking antigens in the transplanted organ that are different from its own. Drugs that suppress the immune system are now used to prevent rejection, but they also make the patient vulnerable to infection. Immunologists are using their increased understanding of the immune system to develop more subtle ways of fooling the immune system into accepting transplants.
See also Antibody and antigen.
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Kenneth B. Chiacchia
Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Hydrazones to IncompatibilityImmunology - History Of Immunology, Friend Or Foe?, Selecting Disease Fighters, Advances In Immunology—monoclonal Antibody Technology