Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Medical Research I'd like to see

Ok, this post is not going to be interesting to most people, but it's the kind of thing that I think of that makes me go Hmmmm.

So I've been thinking about our immune systems, how they work and how they could go haywire.  First let me say, I have no background in medicine other than getting sick and going to the doctor, and know very little about biology other than what I learned from my mom or in Biology 101 and 102 in college.  This basically means you should ignore everything I say from this point on, because I'm not at all qualified to be asking these questions.

I've been thinking of the nature of several illnesses that are seemingly treated as separate entities, but at a basic level they seem to be caused by immune systems going haywire, and I'm wondering if they could be related.  The three illnesses I've notices are allergies, Celiac disease, and type 1 diabetes though there could be others that fit this profile as well.

Allergies can include a wide range of reactions to a wide variety of substances.  For instance, I'm allergic to dogs, dust mites, mold, and a variety of pollens goldenrod being the most reaction causing.  My reaction to these various allergens is mostly nasal (though I've had hives once) and disgusting but relatively short term (assuming I'm not exposed for long) and can be easily medicated using Claritin (and ten years of allergy shots helped a lot).  I had a friend in college who had other various allergies to artificial scents and smoke and these causing her throat to close up and breathing problems.  I've also heard a lot recently about allergies to peanuts which can cause anaphylactic shock and death.  Allergies have been loosely linked to heredity, for instance my dad has mild hay-fever type allergies.  I have similar allergies, though more severe, and my mom and sister don't suffer from any significant allergies that I know of.  All of these reactions, though they range greatly in their severity, have one thing in common.  They're caused by an inappropriate immune response to a substance that in most people does not cause any immune response at all.  Basically exposure to these substances causes our immune systems to go haywire, and the immunologic response itself is what causes illness.

Celiac disease is something I'm less familiar with, though I've read a bit about it and have a cousin who suffers from it.  Celiac disease is caused by an intolerance for gluten (found in wheat, barley, rye, and products made from these grains).  If you have celiac disease, when your body absorbs gluten your immune system attacks the villi in your small intestines which are what absorbs nutrients in your food.  The more gluten you eat the greater the immune response eventually destroying the villi and possibly your ability to absorb nutrients.  Damage is irreversible and the only way to keep damage from increasing is to not eat gluten.  Celiac disease also tends to run in families though the exact mechanism of heredity is unknown.

The final disease I've been thinking about is type 1 diabetes.  I have an uncle and a brother-in-law who suffer from type one diabetes, and though I'm by no means an expert I've seen their management of this disease and how it affects their lives.  This type of diabetes is caused by the pancreas either partially or completely failing to produce insulin.  Though I suppose it's possible to suffer injury to the pancreas through some other means, the most common cause of pancreatic damage is that for some unknown reason the person's immune system simply attacks the pancreas causing permanent damage.  Damage can be partial or complete.  Some diabetics still make insulin, just not in sufficient amounts to process a healthy diet, which others no longer make insulin at all.  In milder cases a person with diabetes may be able to manage the disease with diet and exercise, but more severe pancreatic damage requires insulin supplements.  We know that the risk of developing type 1 diabetes runs in families, but what we don't know is what triggers the autoimmune response that attacks the pancreas in the first place.

If you look at my family as a whole you would think we're generally healthy with no serious diseases running in the family, but looking at the incidence of these three has gotten me wondering lately.  Could there be a connection between the autoimmune diseases even though reactions and symptoms are so very different?  I wonder if the tendency for autoimmune diseases is genetic, it's just that the immune reaction that causes the disease goes haywire in different ways in different people attacking my uncle's pancreas, my cousin's small intestines, and making me a snot wad.  I hear talk of a cure for diabetes quite frequently, but never have I heard of research to cure celiac disease (though I'm sure there's ongoing research) or allergies.  I'm wondering what kind of research into autoimmune response in general is going on, and if it's being related to the causes of multiple autoimmune diseases.

Food for further thought:  I was a very sickly kid.  I caught everything that went around, and strep throat was my Achilles heel (I would get it time after time after time some years).  There were years where I missed so much school from being ill that they thought about holding me back, even though my mom would pick up the school work I had missed from my teachers and I would do the work at home.  We knew I had allergies, but couldn't find any cause for me to be so susceptible to catching EVERYTHING that went around.  My pediatrician finally sent me out for labs to see if I had some sort of autoimmune disease, but they never could find any cause.  Eventually I grew out of being so sick, oh I catch the occasional cold or strep, but I'm a generally healthy adult.  I think we finally concluded that my immune system just couldn't keep up with my growth rate and it took time to catch up.  I now wonder if it was a different problem.  Maybe my immune system was so preoccupied with it's inappropriate responses to allergens that it was to overworked to deal with the actual pathogens that came it's way.  Could my allergies have actually made me more susceptible to other illnesses growing up?  Perhaps it wasn't a matter of growing into my immune system.  Perhaps it was the ten years of allergy shots that trained my immune system to be more tolerant of allergens and allowed it to focus on more important things, like the flu.