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VAI Voice

The official blog of Van Andel Institute
11 Dec 2019

Explainer: What is immunology?

Immunology is the study of the immune system, the body’s natural defenses against infection and disease. The immune system employs numerous defense mechanisms to keep the body healthy, such as inflammation (more on that here). When the immune system is not working properly, diseases like cancer can take root. In other cases, the immune system may overreact to certain stimuli and begin attacking the body. Examples include:

  • Cancers: Immunology may help us understand how the immune system can be utilized to treat cancers. Some cancers proliferate in the body by bypassing immune system detection. Scientists are now working to better understand how the immune system can be ‚Äúredirected‚ÄĚ to fight cancer cells that otherwise escape notice by the body‚Äôs defense system.
  • Autoimmune diseases: Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body instead of an invading infection. Examples of this include Crohn‚Äôs disease, Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Most autoimmune diseases have no cure, and a number require lifelong treatment to manage.
  • Immunodeficiency: Immunodeficiency occurs when the immune system‚Äôs ability to fight off infection is greatly diminished or nonexistent. Leukemia and multiple myeloma are examples of diseases where patients are Treatments for immunodeficiency typically aim to strengthen the immune system‚Äôs ability to ward off infections that can cause secondary health issues.
HOW CAN RESEARCH HELP?

Ensuring a healthy immune system is critical to helping the body fight disease. By understanding how immune mechanisms work, VAI scientists can translate their discoveries into actionable prevention and treatment techniques to help people live longer, healthier lives. VAI scientists are working to:

  • Lay the foundation for new treatments: Understanding how the immune system keeps us healthy and how problems with immune reactions contribute to disease help lay the groundwork for new prevention and treatment strategies.
  • Understand the interplay between the immune system and other systems: VAI scientists are hard at work determining how metabolism fuels our natural defenses and how these systems can be leveraged in tandem to fight disease.
  • Translate discovery to the clinic: Before they can impact human health, lab discoveries must be translated into strategies that can be tested in clinical trials to ensure safety and efficacy. VAI scientists, through one of our major collaborations, are currently investigating two combination therapies designed to bolster the immune system as a treatment for lung and bladder cancers.