In addition to studying the normal workings of the immune system, immunologists study unwanted immune responses such as allergies, essentially immunological responses of the body to substances or organisms that, as a rule, do not affect most people, and autoimmune diseases (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis and lupus erythematosus) which occur when the body reacts immunologically to some of its own constituents.
Immunologists have developed a large number of procedures have been developed to detect and measure quantities of immunologically active substances such as circulating antibodies and immune globulins. Immune globulins that can be given intravenously (IVIGs) have been found to be more effective against antibody deficiencies and certain autoimmune diseases than their older intramuscular counterparts; their use in a wide spectrum of bacterial and viral infections is under study. Current research in immunology is also aimed at understanding the role of T lymphocytes (see immunity), which play a major part in the body's defenses against infections and neoplasms. AIDS, for example, is the disease that results when the HIV virus destroys certain of these T cells.
See studies by R. Desowitz (1988) and R. Gallo (1991).
Classical immunology ties in with the fields of epidemiology and medicine. It studies the relationship between the body systems, pathogens, and immunity. The earliest written mention of immunity can be traced back to the plague of Athens in 430 BCE. Thucydides noted that people who had recovered from a previous bout of the disease could nurse the sick without contracting the illness a second time. Many other ancient societies have references to this phenomenon, but it was not until the 19th and 20th centuries before the concept developed into scientific theory.
The study of the molecular and cellular components that comprise the immune system, including their function and interaction, is the central science of immunology. The immune system has been divided into a more primitive innate immune system, and acquired or adaptive immune system of vertebrates, the latter of which is further divided into humoral and cellular components.
The humoral (antibody) response is defined as the interaction between antibodies and antigens. Antibodies are specific proteins released from a certain class of immune cells (B lymphocytes). Antigens are defined as anything that elicits generation of antibodies, hence they are Antibody Generators. Immunology itself rests on an understanding of the properties of these two biological entities. However, equally important is the cellular response, which can not only kill infected cells in its own right, but is also crucial in controlling the antibody response. Put simply, both systems are highly interdependent.
In the 21st century, immunology has broadened its horizons with much research being performed in the more specialized niches of immunology. This includes the immunological function of cells, organs and systems not normally associated with the immune system, as well as the function of the immune system outside classical models of immunity.
The diseases caused by disorders of the immune system fall into two broad categories: immunodeficiency, in which parts of the immune system fail to provide an adequate response (examples include chronic granulomatous disease), and autoimmunity, in which the immune system attacks its own host's body (examples include systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto's disease and myasthenia gravis). Other immune system disorders include different hypersensitivities, in which the system responds inappropriately to harmless compounds (asthma and other allergies) or responds too intensely.
The most well-known disease that affects the immune system itself is AIDS, caused by HIV. AIDS is an immunodeficiency characterized by the lack of CD4+ ("helper") T cells and macrophages, which are destroyed by HIV.
The use of immune system components to treat a disease or disorder is known as immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is most commonly used in the context of the treatment of cancers together with chemotherapy (drugs) and radiotherapy (radiation). However, immunotherapy is also often used in the immunosuppressed (such as HIV patients) and people suffering from other immune deficiencies or autoimmune diseases.
A development of complexity of the immune system can be seen from simple phagocytotic protection of single celled organisms, to circulating antimicrobial peptides in insects to lymphoid organs in vertebrates. Of course, like much of evolutionary observation, these physical properties are often seen from the anthropocentric aspect. It should be recognized that every organism living today has an immune system absolutely capable of protecting it from most forms of harm; those organisms that did not adapt their immune systems to external threats are no longer around to be observed.
Insects and other arthropods, while not possessing true adaptive immunity, show highly evolved systems of innate immunity, and are additionally protected from external injury (and exposure to pathogens) by their chitinous shells.