Politics and Immunology: Diseased bodies in distress

Some of you may immediately feel nauseated when watching the news today. Understandable, since engaging in the developments of the home of the brave and land of the free may wear one out these days. But no worries – you are not alone. In fact, the instance that you still bravely follow the news shows how strong you are. So let´s try to understand how we got to this point.

The political developments across the ocean engage people all around the world. Why? Well, because unfortunately the waves provoked by the leader of the brave and free are strong enough to churn and travel the entire ocean, leading to turbulences offshore and significant spillovers wherever they collide with land. The decisions in the country of endless opportunities affect the entire body, including freedom of press, independence of justice, independent research, the climate, humanity, world trade, and whether we live in peace or war. Every day tweets go viral and electrify millions of people.

As much as many may feel blindsided by those big changes, they do not happen out of the blue. As an immunologist knows, in a complex system almost nothing does. As a matter of fact, every complex system, whether it is a government, society, or an immune system, consists of many variables that carefully need to be balanced. For an immunologist, it is tempting to try and explain current developments with a basic principle our own body follows on a daily basis. This basic principle is the body’s capability to distinguish between harmless versus harmful changes. Recognition of harmless or harmful developments is supposed to lead to tolerance or control due to the thread anticipated for the organism. The goal is set high: peace and communal survival. Somehow one cannot help but think that this basic and approved principle is where things went badly wrong in the past. When thinking of recent corporate developments several scenarios of momentous disease progression in immunology may come to mind:

Cancerous developments in politics? (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cancer-cell.jpg)

  1. Usually, when a cell screams louder than all the others, wears an outstandingly suspicious headpiece and aims to attack other peaceful externally unsuspicious cells, this one cell alarms the immune system. This is secured by the cells safeguarding the cell populations of the organism. Although obviously less harmonious, one very special cell may have escaped the control mechanisms for sources of danger to the community. Worse, this cell may convince others to follow its lead and attack the body homing them. No wonder the outbreak of an autoimmune disease leading to self-destruction suggests itself.
  2. Alarming prion diseases (progressive neurodegenerative disorders). Prion diseases occur in humans (e.g. Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease) and animals (e.g. Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy). They are characterized by long incubation periods, neuronal loss as well as the failure to induce an inflammatory response. On a molecular level the abnormal folding of proteins is induced. These abnormal proteins result in brain damage and finally lead to death of the organism. Recapitulatory, these diseases cause an altered perception, limit the ability to make smart decisions and paralyze the body which then is unable to react before it is already over – symptoms sounding alarmingly familiar.
  3. Last but not least: tumor outgrowth, a serious condition with many consequences and the urgent need for therapy – which is apparently why so many researchers spend their lifetime encapsulated in sterile laboratories. Somehow one cell transforms due to more or less natural causes. Then, this transformed cell may hide underneath a special headpiece that designates it as something different than it really is. Once the camouflage is established, the cell can proliferate undamped. This leads to the generation of thousands of clones forming a colony of cells that consequently replace the body’s native cells. The naturally safeguarding cells recognize the health threat too late, are overwhelmed, and spread of cells escaping the control of the immune system soon leads to hubs of these cells throughout the organism. This cellular imbalance finally harms and menaces the whole body.


The assessment, which of this diseases applies best, is up to the individual. However, many open questions remain: How much damage will be caused? How long will the acrid phase of recovery be? Moreover, is there a cure? Sometimes it may occur as if one is trapped in a swamp. The more the single body extremities move in an uncoordinated fashion, the faster the whole enterprise sinks. Will it be possible to recover from caused damage? Sadly, only the future can tell. But if immunology tells us one thing, it is to focus on connecting common features, emphasize them, and integrate all the signals received to make smart decisions. Beyond, we may need faith that there is no wound time and a sound immune system cannot heal.

Author: Larissa Mühlenbeck

(featured image from colourbox.com)