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What Is Immunology?

Immunology is the study of the immune system, which is responsible for protecting the body from foreign cells such as viruses, bacteria and parasites. Immune system cells called T and B lymphocytes identify and destroy these invaders. The lymphocytes usually recognize and ignore the body’s own tissue (a condition called immunological self-tolerance), but certain autoimmune disorders trigger a malfunction in the immune response causing an attack on the body’s own cells due to a loss of immune tolerance. 

Immunology and Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks insulin-producing islet cells in the pancreas. This attack begins years before type 1 diabetes becomes evident, so by the time someone is diagnosed, extensive damage has already been done and the ability to produce insulin is lost.

It is unknown how and why diabetes causes a loss of immunological self-tolerance, but solving this mystery is important:

  • Understanding this problem could lead to new prevention methods and reveal a way to intervene and rebuild immune tolerance early in the disease process.
  • Islet transplantation and stem cell therapy hold great promise, but the success of both methods is limited by the need for immunosuppressive drugs to protect the new islet cells from immune attack.

Joslin Researchers Are Searching for Answers

  • How does the immune system usually maintain immune tolerance and prevent autoimmune attack?
  • How are molecular and cellular processes different in people with diabetes, and how do these differences trigger the disease?
  • How can autoimmune attack and type 1 diabetes be detected early on? Is there a way to observe damage in the pancreas through advanced technology?
  • Is it possible to prevent the autoimmune attack that triggers diabetes? Can immunological tolerance be restored?

Most Commonly Used Terms

Autoimmune disease:disorder of the body’s immune system in which the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys body tissue considered foreign.

Islet cells: cells found within the pancreas, clustered in formations called islets. These cells make insulin and are also called pancreatic beta cells.

Lymphocytes: immune system cells that identify and destroy foreign agents such as viruses, bacteria and parasites.

Page last updated: July 25, 2014