Autoimmune Disease: A body at war with itself

The immune system is supposed to protect the body against invading pathogens

Autoimmune disease is a condition in which the body attacks itself, health experts told Fox News. Recently, the autoimmune disease scleroderma has been in the headlines after the death of actor/comedian Bob Saget, who campaigned to find a cure for the condition that took his sister's life. 

According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIAID, more than 80 diseases occur as a result of the body’s own immune system attacking its own tissues, cells, and organs. The Autoimmune Association says that in the United States, autoimmune diseases affect more than 24 million people.

File photo of a businesswoman with arthritis in her wrist.

File photo of a businesswoman with arthritis in her wrist. (iStock)

Health experts told Fox that the immune system is supposed to protect the body against invading pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria, by producing antibodies or white blood cells called lymphocytes. In a healthy individual, the immune response is not triggered to fight its own cells or tissues in the body. Under certain conditions, however, immune cells may mistakenly attack the actual cells that they are supposed to protect. Ordinarily, these lymphocytes are suppressed but when they are not, this can lead to various types of autoimmune conditions, health experts explained to Fox News. 

File photo of a woman's feet suffering from arthritis pain.

File photo of a woman's feet suffering from arthritis pain. (iStock)

According to the Autoimmune Association, an autoimmune disorder can also occur when there is an alteration in a body’s tissue where the immune system no longer perceives that tissue as "self" and then it becomes the target for an attack. 

The association says that it is not yet known what mechanisms caused the change to trigger the attack, but said viruses, toxins, bacteria, and some drugs may play a role in triggering an autoimmune response in someone who is genetically predisposed to develop this condition. 

Autoimmune diseases vary in severity and how they attack the body. Certain autoimmune conditions are more widespread throughout the body, like rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE or lupus), and certain forms of scleroderma, which can affect cartilage, joints and tissues, affecting quality of life, health experts told Fox News.  

Other autoimmune conditions may target mainly one organ such as the thyroid, (Hashimoto’s thyroiditis), pancreas, (type 1 diabetes), and liver (Primary Biliary Cholangitis, autoimmune hepatitis), autoimmune experts explained to Fox News.  

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Meredith Stone is a patient who has primary biliary cholangitis (PBC). PBC is an autoimmune disease that attacks the bile ducts of the liver, creating scarring and potentially causing liver failure, health experts told Fox News.  

"The thought that there is this war inside where my body is attacking my liver and I can’t control it just baffles me," Stone told Fox News.  

Stone, part jokingly, said she wished her doctors could figure out what caused the argument between her body and her liver so it could be resolved.  

That argument is a question that plagues many physicians and researchers treating patients with autoimmune diseases. 

Hips and knees are the most frequent culprits of arthritis, experts say.

Hips and knees are the most frequent culprits of arthritis, experts say. (iStock)

Dr. Douglas Dieterich is a Professor of Medicine in the Division of Liver Diseases in the Department of Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City. Dieterich treats several types of autoimmune liver conditions, including PBC and told Fox News "Autoimmune diseases are frequently genetically transmitted". 

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Experts from NIAID say that the cause of autoimmune diseases remains unknown, noting, "A person’s genes in combination with infections and other environmental exposures are likely to play a significant role in disease development." 

Health experts told Fox News that there are no known cures for autoimmune diseases, but there are some treatments designed to help slow the progression of these chronic diseases.  

Dieterich told Fox News that many autoimmune diseases are treated with immunosuppressants, which are medications that lower the individual’s immune response. 

Though these medications give some hope while a cure is still to be found, it puts patients in an immunocompromised state. This immunosuppressed condition is something to be vigilant with when exposed to colds, flu, and during today’s COVID pandemic, doctors warned.  

"Those will make patients more susceptible to infection like COVID and or less likely to respond to vaccinations", Dieterich told Fox News.  

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Although researchers have made considerable progress, NIAID says much remains to be learned.  Currently, NIAID is supporting a broad range of research to enhance our understanding of autoimmune diseases.