Normally, the immune system is able to distinguish between infectious organisms or foreign tissues (such as a transplanted organ), which are attacked or rejected, and the body's own organs or tissues, which are tolerated. How white blood cells perform these functions is a fascinating story. The process requires continual adaptation on the part of white blood cells to recognize—through receptors on their surfaces and in proteins they make—any disease-producing bacteria, virus, or fungus, and even the body's own cells that have become cancerous.
Scientists have learned to activate the immune system—through vaccination—to defend the body against potentially infectious challengers. The other side of immunity, however, is that these white blood cells sometimes misrecognize and cause damage to the body's own cells and proteins. White blood cells that act in this way must be destroyed or held in check. If the system breaks down, autoimmune disease may occur. The immune system is then said to have "lost tolerance" to a particular organ or tissue in the body. Restoration of this tolerance is the ultimate goal of any treatment for autoimmune disease.
In MS, tolerance is lost to myelin in the CNS. By a process that continues to be clarified at a rapid rate, white blood cells cross into the CNS and destroy myelin. Some white blood cells specifically misrecognize myelin, others make antibodies to myelin, and still others digest myelin. Moreover, in keeping with the natural system of checks and balances in immunity, other classes of white blood cells suppress the inflammatory attack.
The ability of scientists to produce an MS-like disease—called experimental allergic encephalomyelitis—in laboratory animals has been critical to understanding the immune process in general and MS in particular. This animal research has been instrumental in the development and testing of therapeutic interventions prior to clinical testing in humans with MS.
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