Immunology is a branch of science that studies all aspects of the immune system, ranging from normal physiological functioning through to malfunctions which can lead to immunological diseases. Disorders that result from aberrant activation of the immune system are termed autoimmune diseases.
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An autoimmune disease is a disease that results from the immune system mounting a defence against host cells or tissues; in effect, the body attacks its own proteins by creating autoantibodies, which also cause inflammation.
There are numerous autoimmune diseases, each affecting a different type of cell or tissue, and they are generally classified as either organ-specific or systemic. Type I or insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, in which β islet cells in the pancreas are destroyed by an autoimmune response, is an example of an organ-specific disease. Rheumatoid arthritis primarily affects synovial joints, where an abnormal, chronic inflammatory response results in the degradation of cartilage and inflammation of the joint. However, since it can also manifest in the lungs and skin, rheumatoid arthritis is classed as a systemic autoimmune disease. Lupus erythematosus, in which the immune system creates antibodies against itself, is also systemic. Other diseases, for example chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and sarcoidosis, are suspected of having autoimmune elements.
The mechanisms behind the autoimmune response are not entirely clear however, agents such as toxins, drugs or viruses can trigger an autoimmune response in a person with genetic predisposition to autoimmune disease. The complement system has also been closely linked with the development of autoimmune disorders.
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