The lymphatic system is a series of vessels, ducts, and trunks that remove interstitial fluid from the tissues and return it the blood. The lymphatics are also used to transport dietary lipids and cells of the immune system. Cells of the immune system all come from the hematopoietic system of the bone marrow. Primary lymphoid organs, the bone marrow and thymus gland, are the locations where lymphocytes of the adaptive immune system proliferate and mature. Secondary lymphoid organs are site in which mature lymphocytes congregate to mount immune responses. Many immune system cells use the lymphatic and circulatory systems for transport throughout the body to search for and then protect against pathogens.
Innate immune responses are critical to the early control of infections. Whereas barrier defenses are the body’s first line of physical defense against pathogens, innate immune responses are the first line of physiological defense. Innate responses occur rapidly, but with less specificity and effectiveness than the adaptive immune response. Innate responses can be caused by a variety of cells, mediators, and antibacterial proteins such as complement. Within the first few days of an infection, another series of antibacterial proteins are induced, each with activities against certain bacteria, including opsonization of certain species. Additionally, interferons are induced that protect cells from viruses in their vicinity. Finally, the innate immune response does not stop when the adaptive immune response is developed. In fact, both can cooperate and one can influence the other in their responses against pathogens.
T cells recognize antigens with their antigen receptor, a complex of two protein chains on their surface. They do not recognize self-antigens, however, but only processed antigen presented on their surfaces in a binding groove of a major histocompatibility complex molecule. T cells develop in the thymus, where they learn to use self-MHC molecules to recognize only foreign antigens, thus making them tolerant to self-antigens. There are several functional types of T lymphocytes, the major ones being helper, regulatory, and cytotoxic T cells.
B cells, which develop within the bone marrow, are responsible for making five different classes of antibodies, each with its own functions. B cells have their own mechanisms for tolerance, but in peripheral tolerance, the B cells that leave the bone marrow remain inactive due to T cell tolerance. Some B cells do not need T cell cytokines to make antibody, and they bypass this need by the crosslinking of their surface immunoglobulin by repeated carbohydrate residues found in the cell walls of many bacterial species. Others require T cells to become activated.
Early childhood is a time when the body develops much of its immunological memory that protects it from diseases in adulthood. The components of the immune response that have the maximum effectiveness against a pathogen are often associated with the class of pathogen involved. Bacteria and fungi are especially susceptible to damage by complement proteins, whereas viruses are taken care of by interferons and cytotoxic T cells. Worms are attacked by eosinophils. Pathogens have shown the ability, however, to evade the body’s immune responses, some leading to chronic infections or even death. The immune system and pathogens are in a slow, evolutionary race to see who stays on top. Modern medicine, hopefully, will keep the results skewed in humans’ favor.
The immune response can be under-reactive or over-reactive. Suppressed immunity can result from inherited genetic defects or by acquiring viruses. Over-reactive immune responses include the hypersensitivities: B cell- and T cell-mediated immune responses designed to control pathogens, but that lead to symptoms or medical complications. The worst cases of over-reactive immune responses are autoimmune diseases, where an individual’s immune system attacks their own body because of the breakdown of immunological tolerance. These diseases are more common in the aged, so treating them will be a challenge in the future as the aged population in the world increases.
Blood transfusion and organ transplantation both require an understanding of the immune response to prevent medical complications. Blood needs to be typed so that natural antibodies against mismatched blood will not destroy it, causing more harm than good to the recipient. Transplanted organs must be matched by their MHC molecules and, with the use of immunosuppressive drugs, can be successful even if an exact tissue match cannot be made. Another aspect to the immune response is its ability to control and eradicate cancer. Although this has been shown to occur with some rare cancers and those caused by known viruses, the normal immune response to most cancers is not sufficient to control cancer growth. Thus, cancer vaccines designed to enhance these immune responses show promise for certain types of cancer.