What is an Immunologist?

Immunologists are scientists or clinicians who specialise in the field of Immunology. Immunology is a very broad branch of the biological sciences and is defined as the study of an organism's defence (immune) system, in both health and disease. All multicellular organisms are prey to infection or invasion. Harmful organisms such as viruses, bacteria and parasites constantly seek to gain access into the body, and if successful, this can lead to a number of serious diseases.

The immune system

The principal role of the immune system is to defend the body against possible infections by discriminating between self and non-self. The immune system has evolved over millions of years to respond and destroy any organisms that have gained entry into the body.

The complexity of immune systems generally mirrors evolutionary history; with more 'primitive' organisms possessing immune systems composed of discrete, general purpose, effector cells and molecules; whilst more 'advanced' organisms have developed organs and tissues with a specific immune purpose, whilst retaining the cellular component. A key part of Immunology involves studying how the many different organs, cells and molecules of the immune system work and interact with each other.

In broad terms, the earlier form of the immune system is known as the 'innate' immune system, and is found in a wide range of organisms (including invertebrates and primitive vertebrates); whilst the later form is known as the 'adaptive' immune system and is common to higher vertebrates (including humans). The two systems are largely integrated in these organisms.

Specifically:

  • The innate immune system encompasses natural barriers to infection, such as skin and cells lining the mouth, as well as the effector cells and molecules already mentioned; all of which are capable of guarding against a wide range of invasive agents.
  • The adaptive immune system encompasses specialised cells, organs and tissues which are responsible for reacting to a specific foreign substance (in an adaptive sense).

The integrity of the immune system is thus crucial for the survival of every individual organism.

Working as an immunologist

Years ago, an immunologist typically spent most of their time at a laboratory bench looking down a microscope. Today, the broad and complex nature of the immune system makes it essential that immunologists adopt a multidisciplinary approach to their work.

Immunologists work in many different areas of biomedical research, as well as in healthcare, agriculture and environmental monitoring. Because Immunology can be applied to several other scientific disciplines it impacts on many areas of conventional medicine.

Immunologists often have different job titles and their role often depends on type of organisation they work for:

  • Immunologists employed by universities work in virtually every life science department or division conducting research to increase our understanding of the immune system. They can also work as lecturers, teaching students about Immunology whilst still conducting their own research.
  • Immunologists employed by the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK tend to be either qualified doctors specialising in the study of diseases (pathology) or the study of allergies. They can also be scientists with expertise in a clinical laboratory.
  • Immunologists employed in the pharmaceutical and biotechnical industry help develop new medical products and therapies. They generally work with other scientists to produce new products or improve existing ones.
  • Immunologists also work within the veterinary sciences as veterinary immunologists, researching better ways of improving animal healthcare by preventing disease, and providing treatment for those animals suffering from infections and other immunological conditions.

Conducting research into immunological disorders

Immunologists who conduct research, do so to increase our understanding of how the immune system works. They also conduct research to find out what happens when the immune system fails to work properly.

Many diseases are caused when the immune system behaves incorrectly. Immunologists try to understand how and why the immune system malfunctions and causes disease. Such diseases can be broadly classified into the following categories:

  1. Immunodeficiency: this occurs when parts of the immune system fail to respond adequately to a harmful foreign substance or organism.
  2. Autoimmunity: This occurs when the immune system attacks the very tissue it is meant to protect; due to failure of the immune system to recognise its tissues as being 'self'.
  3. Hypersensitivity: This occurs when the immune system responds inappropriately (sometimes too intensely) to harmless compounds.

Immunologists also conduct research to develop better ways of diagnosing and providing treatment for many immunological conditions.

Treating immunological disorders

Clinical immunologists are responsible for diagnosing and treating human patients with immunological disorders. They spend most of their time either in the laboratory conducting research to develop new therapies or diagnostic techniques, or else based in clinics discussing patient treatment strategies.

Immunological research has helped scientists understand the potential causes of many immunological diseases, and enabled them to develop treatments and cures.

Dealing with autoimmunity

Immunologists are still not exactly sure what causes the immune system to turn against itself, as occurs in autoimmune diseases such as Type-1 diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis. However, treatments have been developed to manage these conditions on a symptomatic basis.

Dealing with the consequences of transplantation

Immunologists perform a critical role in developing therapies to prevent transplant rejection in organ transplant patients. By understanding how a transplant becomes rejected, immunologists are now able to use drugs to suppress the immune system, which becomes a barrier to achieving a successful outcome.

Producing vaccines to address global healthcare

Immunologists have manipulated the body's ability to identify and respond to an invading foreign organism and have developed vaccines to prevent and control subsequent infections. Infectious diseases account for more human suffering in the world than any other cause.

Immunologists from developed nations are working together with countries in the developing world to help prevent and treat the major problems associated with global health/disease. These include vaccine preventable diseases, emerging infectious diseases, HIV/AIDS, malaria, sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, cancer and other neglected infectious diseases.

The future of the immunologist

Over the years, the endless efforts of scientists working on the immune system have led to the recognition of Immunology as a complete and extensive discipline of medicine. However, the borders of Immunology as a discipline are overlapping with many other clinical and basic sciences. Some scientists are worried that it will become increasingly difficult to know who, or what, an immunologist is. Whatever effect this may have on the future of Immunology as a discipline, it is clear that Immunology and its techniques will remain a very important part of the medical and biological sciences.

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