With allergies sending many Texans to the pharmacy for relief, plus the recent measles outbreak, there are many reminders of our immune system all around us. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Matt Richtel, explores that system in his new book, “An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System. ”
Richtel began writing about the immune system after witnessing his friend’s miraculous recovery from cancer. The friend was admitted to hospice with 15 pounds of cancer in his back, and took an immunotherapy drug as a last-ditch attempt to save his own life.
“He had nine toes in the grave at the time,” Richtel says. “Two weeks after he took this, his girlfriend woke him up and said, ‘Jason, wake up. Your tumor’s disappeared.’”
Richtel decided to use his skills as a journalist to figure out what had happened to Jason, and explore what else the immune system is capable of. Richtel says these days, there’s more access to information about the body than ever before, and the immune system is no longer viewed as a machine that attacks everything that comes its way. Rather, it’s seen more as orchestrating a delicate balance of attacking and withdrawing, when necessary, to keep the body functioning.
But the system has its flaws. An overzealous immune system, for example, can lead to autoimmune diseases, which means it attacks healthy cells. An “underperforming” immune system, on the other hand, can let in disease.
“It’s different for everybody. When you monkey around with the immune system, it doesn’t always work,” Richtel says. “Sometimes you get it to attack too vigorously, and then it attacks you, not just the tumor. And sometimes you withdraw it to stop autoimmune disorders, and you withdraw it so much, you wind up letting in disease.”
Richtels says while some may overlook the immune system, and instead, focus on brain or heart health, the immune system is actually highly complex and worth the attention.
“It has a telecommunication system that makes the internet look like a landline phone or dial-up service,” Richtel says. “It has a series of molecules that send subtle messages capable of … attacking virtually infinite numbers of alien different kind of species.”
Richtel says it’s also important for those in the medical world to understand the immune system’s role when it comes to diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
“We are beginning to yield, or curb or bend around the immune system as a unifying central theme in all of medicine .”
Support for Texas Standard’s ”Spotlight on Health” project is provided by St. David’s Foundation.
Written by Marina Vences.