Genetics of Tissue-Specific Autoimmunity


Tolerance in the immune system

One key to our immune defenses is being able to distinguish between foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses (non-self) and the “home front” of our own tissues (self).  The body’s immune system defends against infection and disease by constantly generating white blood cells or lymphocytes that can recognize and attack a wide variety of bacteria and viruses. In this process, lymphocytes are sometimes born that mistakenly recognize our own tissue components.  The immune system has special checks and balances to neutralize or remove those cells in a process called immune tolerance.  When the checkpoints don’t work, lymphocytes that recognize “self” can escape and begin attacking our own tissues to produce autoimmune disease.  Thus, autoimmunity is the breakdown of tolerance to self-tissue.

Examples of autoimmune diseases

You may know someone with Type 1 diabetes which occurs when the immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.  Other well-known autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and lupus. Autoimmune disease can arise to many different organs, including the eye, salivary gland, thyroid, lung, liver, adrenals, ovaries, or parathyroid glands to name just a few.  Check with your doctor if you have a condition affecting one of these glands to see if autoimmunity may be part of the problem.