Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Too Much of a Good Thing

Credit: Petr Ciz/Adobe

Credit: Petr Ciz/Adobe

By Claire L. Thompson & Markus J. Hofer

Our immune system protects us from disease but can also cause harm. Sydney scientists are now trying to interfere with the immune signals that can provoke serious side-effects.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

The symptoms are all too familiar: pounding headache, scratchy throat, achy muscles and a rising fever. What you are likely experiencing are the hallmarks of a viral infection such as the common cold.

Ironically, these symptoms are often a consequence of your body’s immune response rather than the virus itself. As you fight off the infection, the very defence system that is designed to protect you can become the reason you feel so miserable.

The immune system must strike a delicate balance when it comes to viral infections. An insufficient response and the virus will persist as a chronic infection or kill the host. An over­reaction can be too much of a good thing, damaging the body and potentially causing death.

So how does the immune system fine tune its response to viruses? And can we use this knowledge to fight viral infections more effectively or even to treat diseases caused by an over­active immune response?

Lessons from the Immune System

Over the course of human evolution, viruses have been our constant companions. They are deceptively simple, comprised of nucleic acids protected by a coat of proteins.

However, our bodies have evolved complex strategies to deal with viruses. Once our body detects a virus, most of our cells have the capacity to secrete a family of proteins known as type I interferons. As their name...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.