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Autoimmunity is the system of immune responses of an organism against its own healthy cells and tissues. Any disease that results from such an aberrant immune response is termed an autoimmune disease. Prominent examples include Celiac disease, diabetes mellitus type 1, Sarcoidosis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), Sjögren's syndrome, Churg-Strauss Syndrome, Hashimoto's thyroiditis, Graves' disease, idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, Addison's Disease, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), ankylosing spondylitis, Polymyositis (PM), and Dermatomyositis (DM). Autoimmune diseases are very often treated with steroids.
The misconception that an individual's immune system is totally incapable of recognizing self antigens is not new. Paul Ehrlich, at the beginning of the twentieth century, proposed the concept of horror autotoxicus, wherein a "normal" body does not mount an immune response against its own tissues. Thus, any autoimmune response was perceived to be abnormal and postulated to be connected with human disease. Now, it is accepted that autoimmune responses are an integral part of vertebrate immune systems (sometimes termed "natural autoimmunity"), normally prevented from causing disease by the phenomenon of immunological tolerance to self-antigens. Autoimmunity should not be confused with alloimmunity.
While a high level of autoimmunity is unhealthy, a low level of autoimmunity may actually be beneficial. Taking the experience of a beneficial factor in autoimmunity further, one might hypothesize with intent to prove that autoimmunity is always a self-defense mechanism of the mammal system to survive. The system does not randomly lose the ability to distinguish between self and non-self, the attack on cells may be the consequence of cycling metabolic processes necessary to keep the blood chemistry in homeostasis.
Second, autoimmunity may have a role in allowing a rapid immune response in the early stages of an infection when the availability of foreign antigens limits the response (i.e., when there are few pathogens present). In their study, Stefanova et al. (2002) injected an anti-MHC Class II antibody into mice expressing a single type of MHC Class II molecule (H-2b) to temporarily prevent CD4+ T cell-MHC interaction. Naive CD4+ T cells (those that have not encountered any antigens before) recovered from these mice 36 hours post-anti-MHC administration showed decreased responsiveness to the antigen pigeon cytochrome C peptide, as determined by Zap-70 phosphorylation, proliferation, and Interleukin-2 production. Thus Stefanova et al. (2002) demonstrated that self-MHC recognition (which, if too strong may contribute to autoimmune disease) maintains the responsiveness of CD4+ T cells when foreign antigens are absent. This idea of autoimmunity is conceptually similar to play-fighting. The play-fighting of young cubs (TCR and self-MHC) may result in a few scratches or scars (low-level-autoimmunity), but is beneficial in the long-term as it primes the young cub for proper fights in the future.
Pioneering work by Noel Rose and Ernst Witebsky in New York, and Roitt and Doniach at University College London provided clear evidence that, at least in terms of antibody-producing B lymphocytes, diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and thyrotoxicosis are associated with loss of immunological tolerance, which is the ability of an individual to ignore "self", while reacting to "non-self". This breakage leads to the immune system's mounting an effective and specific immune response against self determinants. The exact genesis of immunological tolerance is still elusive, but several theories have been proposed since the mid-twentieth century to explain its origin.
Three hypotheses have gained widespread attention among immunologists:
In addition, two other theories are under intense investigation:
Tolerance can also be differentiated into "Central" and "Peripheral" tolerance, on whether or not the above-stated checking mechanisms operate in the central lymphoid organs (Thymus and Bone Marrow) or the peripheral lymphoid organs (lymph node, spleen, etc., where self-reactive B-cells may be destroyed). It must be emphasised that these theories are not mutually exclusive, and evidence has been mounting suggesting that all of these mechanisms may actively contribute to vertebrate immunological tolerance.
A puzzling feature of the documented loss of tolerance seen in spontaneous human autoimmunity is that it is almost entirely restricted to the autoantibody responses produced by B lymphocytes. Loss of tolerance by T cells has been extremely hard to demonstrate, and where there is evidence for an abnormal T cell response it is usually not to the antigen recognised by autoantibodies. Thus, in rheumatoid arthritis there are autoantibodies to IgG Fc but apparently no corresponding T cell response. In systemic lupus there are autoantibodies to DNA, which cannot evoke a T cell response, and limited evidence for T cell responses implicates nucleoprotein antigens. In Celiac disease there are autoantibodies to tissue transglutaminase but the T cell response is to the foreign protein gliadin. This disparity has led to the idea that human autoimmune disease is in most cases (with probable exceptions including type I diabetes) based on a loss of B cell tolerance which makes use of normal T cell responses to foreign antigens in a variety of aberrant ways.
There are a large number of immunodeficiency syndromes that present clinical and laboratory characteristics of autoimmunity. The decreased ability of the immune system to clear infections in these patients may be responsible for causing autoimmunity through perpetual immune system activation.
One example is common variable immunodeficiency (CVID) where multiple autoimmune diseases are seen, e.g. inflammatory bowel disease, autoimmune thrombocytopenia and autoimmune thyroid disease. Familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, an autosomal recessive primary immunodeficiency, is another example. Pancytopenia, rashes, swollen lymph nodes and enlargement of the liver and spleen are commonly seen in such individuals. Presence of multiple uncleared viral infections due to lack of perforin are thought to be responsible. In addition to chronic and/or recurrent infections many autoimmune diseases including arthritis, autoimmune hemolytic anemia, scleroderma and type 1 diabetes mellitus are also seen in X-linked agammaglobulinemia (XLA). Recurrent bacterial and fungal infections and chronic inflammation of the gut and lungs are seen in chronic granulomatous disease (CGD) as well. CGD is a caused by decreased production of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADPH) oxidase by neutrophils. Hypomorphic RAG mutations are seen in patients with midline granulomatous disease; an autoimmune disorder that is commonly seen in patients with granulomatosis with polyangiitis (formerly known as Wegener’s granulomatosis) and NK/T cell lymphomas. Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome (WAS) patients also present with eczema, autoimmune manifestations, recurrent bacterial infections and lymphoma. In autoimmune polyendocrinopathy-candidiasis-ectodermal dystrophy (APECED) also autoimmunity and infections coexist: organ-specific autoimmune manifestations (e.g. hypoparathyroidism and adrenocortical failure) and chronic mucocutaneous candidiasis. Finally, IgA deficiency is also sometimes associated with the development of autoimmune and atopic phenomena.
Certain individuals are genetically susceptible to developing autoimmune diseases. This susceptibility is associated with multiple genes plus other risk factors. Genetically predisposed individuals do not always develop autoimmune diseases.
Three main sets of genes are suspected in many autoimmune diseases. These genes are related to:
The first two, which are involved in the recognition of antigens, are inherently variable and susceptible to recombination. These variations enable the immune system to respond to a very wide variety of invaders, but may also give rise to lymphocytes capable of self-reactivity.
Scientists such as Hugh McDevitt, G. Nepom, J. Bell and J. Todd have also provided strong evidence to suggest that certain MHC class II allotypes are strongly correlated with[clarification needed]
Fewer correlations exist with MHC class I molecules. The most notable and consistent is the association between HLA B27 and spondyloarthropathies like ankylosing spondylitis and reactive arthritis. Correlations may exist between polymorphisms within class II MHC promoters and autoimmune disease.
The contributions of genes outside the MHC complex remain the subject of research, in animal models of disease (Linda Wicker's extensive genetic studies of diabetes in the NOD mouse), and in patients (Brian Kotzin's linkage analysis of susceptibility to SLE).
Recently, PTPN22 has been associated with multiple autoimmune diseases including Type I diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Graves’ disease, Addison’s disease, Myasthenia Gravis, vitiligo, systemic sclerosis juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and psoriatic arthritis.[clarification needed]
|Ratio of female/male incidence
of autoimmune diseases
|Multiple sclerosis (MS)||2/1|
|Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)||9/1|
|Primary sclerosing cholangitis||1/2|
A person's sex also seems to have some role in the development of autoimmunity; that is, most autoimmune diseases are sex-related. Nearly 75% of the more than 23.5 million Americans who suffer from autoimmune disease are women, although it is less-frequently acknowledged that millions of men also suffer from these diseases. According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA), autoimmune diseases that develop in men tend to be more severe. A few autoimmune diseases that men are just as or more likely to develop as women include: ankylosing spondylitis, type 1 diabetes mellitus, granulomatosis with polyangiitis, Crohn's disease, Primary sclerosing cholangitis and psoriasis.
The reasons for the sex role in autoimmunity are unclear. Women appear to generally mount larger inflammatory responses than men when their immune systems are triggered, increasing the risk of autoimmunity. Involvement of sex steroids is indicated by that many autoimmune diseases tend to fluctuate in accordance with hormonal changes, for example, during pregnancy, in the menstrual cycle, or when using oral contraception. A history of pregnancy also appears to leave a persistent increased risk for autoimmune disease. It has been suggested that the slight exchange of cells between mothers and their children during pregnancy may induce autoimmunity. This would tip the gender balance in the direction of the female.
Another theory suggests the female high tendency to get autoimmunity is due to an imbalanced X chromosome inactivation. The X-inactivation skew theory, proposed by Princeton University's Jeff Stewart, has recently been confirmed experimentally in scleroderma and autoimmune thyroiditis. Other complex X-linked genetic susceptibility mechanisms are proposed and under investigation.
An interesting inverse relationship exists between infectious diseases and autoimmune diseases. In areas where multiple infectious diseases are endemic, autoimmune diseases are quite rarely seen. The reverse, to some extent, seems to hold true. The hygiene hypothesis attributes these correlations to the immune manipulating strategies of pathogens. Whilst such an observation has been variously termed as spurious and ineffective, according to some studies, parasite infection is associated with reduced activity of autoimmune disease.
The putative mechanism is that the parasite attenuates the host immune response in order to protect itself. This may provide a serendipitous benefit to a host that also suffers from autoimmune disease. The details of parasite immune modulation are not yet known, but may include secretion of anti-inflammatory agents or interference with the host immune signaling.
A paradoxical observation has been the strong association of certain microbial organisms with autoimmune diseases. For example, Klebsiella pneumoniae and coxsackievirus B have been strongly correlated with ankylosing spondylitis and diabetes mellitus type 1, respectively. This has been explained by the tendency of the infecting organism to produce super-antigens that are capable of polyclonal activation of B-lymphocytes, and production of large amounts of antibodies of varying specificities, some of which may be self-reactive (see below).
Certain chemical agents and drugs can also be associated with the genesis of autoimmune conditions, or conditions that simulate autoimmune diseases. The most striking of these is the drug-induced lupus erythematosus. Usually, withdrawal of the offending drug cures the symptoms in a patient.
Cigarette smoking is now established as a major risk factor for both incidence and severity of rheumatoid arthritis. This may relate to abnormal citrullination of proteins, since the effects of smoking correlate with the presence of antibodies to citrullinated peptides.
Several mechanisms are thought to be operative in the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases, against a backdrop of genetic predisposition and environmental modulation. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss each of these mechanisms exhaustively, but a summary of some of the important mechanisms have been described:
Autoimmune diseases can be broadly divided into systemic and organ-specific or localised autoimmune disorders, depending on the principal clinico-pathologic features of each disease.
Using the traditional “organ specific” and “non-organ specific” classification scheme, many diseases have been lumped together under the autoimmune disease umbrella. However, many chronic inflammatory human disorders lack the telltale associations of B and T cell driven immunopathology. In the last decade it has been firmly established that tissue "inflammation against self" does not necessarily rely on abnormal T and B cell responses.
This has led to the recent proposal that the spectrum of autoimmunity should be viewed along an “immunological disease continuum,” with classical autoimmune diseases at one extreme and diseases driven by the innate immune system at the other extreme. Within this scheme, the full spectrum of autoimmunity can be included. Many common human autoimmune diseases can be seen to have a substantial innate immune mediated immunopathology using this new scheme. This new classification scheme has implications for understanding disease mechanisms and for therapy development.
Diagnosis of autoimmune disorders largely rests on accurate history and physical examination of the patient, and high index of suspicion against a backdrop of certain abnormalities in routine laboratory tests (example, elevated C-reactive protein). In several systemic disorders, serological assays which can detect specific autoantibodies can be employed. Localised disorders are best diagnosed by immunofluorescence of biopsy specimens. Autoantibodies are used to diagnose many autoimmune diseases. The levels of autoantibodies are measured to determine the progress of the disease.
Treatments for autoimmune disease have traditionally been immunosuppressive, anti-inflammatory, or palliative. Managing inflammation is critical in autoimmune diseases. Non-immunological therapies, such as hormone replacement in Hashimoto's thyroiditis or Type 1 diabetes mellitus treat outcomes of the autoaggressive response, thus these are palliative treatments. Dietary manipulation limits the severity of celiac disease. Steroidal or NSAID treatment limits inflammatory symptoms of many diseases. IVIG is used for CIDP and GBS. Specific immunomodulatory therapies, such as the TNFα antagonists (e.g. etanercept), the B cell depleting agent rituximab, the anti-IL-6 receptor tocilizumab and the costimulation blocker abatacept have been shown to be useful in treating RA. Some of these immunotherapies may be associated with increased risk of adverse effects, such as susceptibility to infection.
Helminthic therapy is an experimental approach that involves inoculation of the patient with specific parasitic intestinal nematodes (helminths). There are currently two closely related treatments available, inoculation with either Necator americanus, commonly known as hookworms, or Trichuris Suis Ova, commonly known as Pig Whipworm Eggs.
T cell vaccination is also being explored as a possible future therapy for autoimmune disorders.
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