26 October 2005

Immune Systems Gone Wild.

This week's Science News (my source is the hard copy) has a couple of notable developments regarding autoimmune diseases, which are diseases that arise when the body's immune system turns on itself.

One concerns Type 1 diabetes which afflicts about a million people in the United States. In this type of diabetes, the immune system's antibodies attack the cells that create insulin in the pancreas. This means that those who suffer from the disease must inject themselves with insulin for the rest of their lives at a cost of $10,000+ per year and even with treatment are at high risk for complications and have a life expectency 15 years shorter than someone who does not suffer from the disease. The story reports that progress is being made, albeit in the early experimental stage, in treating diabetes with the same immune system suppressing drugs that are used on transplant recipients. Short term benefits have been shown, but it has not been proven as a long term treatment and has numerous side effects.

The other concerns anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, the former being an eating disorder associated with simply not eating enough, and the later associated with vomitting food that is eaten. Traditionally, these have been viewed as fundamentally psychological ailments. But, a new study in Sweden shows that they may be physiologically based autoimmune disorders in which the immune system's antibodies attack melanocortin peptides which control appetite and stress responses in the body. The study involved was small, involving only about 100 subjects, but did show statistically significant links between the two diseases and antibodies related to this appetite controlling substance. A better understanding of the cause of these disorders, of course, could help doctors and scientists develop more effective treatments for these diseases.

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