Autoimmunity is the failure of an organism to recognize its own constituent parts as self, which allows an immune response against its own cells and tissues. Any disease that results from such an aberrant immune response is termed an autoimmune disease. Autoimmunity is often caused by a lack of germ development of a target body and as such the immune response acts against its own cells and tissues (Flowers 2009). Prominent examples include Coeliac disease, diabetes mellitus type 1 (IDDM), systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), Sjögren's syndrome, Churg-Strauss Syndrome, Hashimoto's thyroiditis, Graves' disease, idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, and rheumatoid arthritis (RA). See List of autoimmune diseases.
The misconception that an individual's immune system is totally incapable of recognizing self antigens is not new. Paul Ehrlich, at the beginning of the twentieth century, proposed the concept of horror autotoxicus, wherein a 'normal' body does not mount an immune response against its own tissues. Thus, any autoimmune response was perceived to be abnormal and postulated to be connected with human disease. Now, it is accepted that autoimmune responses are an integral part of vertebrate immune systems (sometimes termed 'natural autoimmunity'), normally prevented from causing disease by the phenomenon of immunological tolerance to self-antigens. Autoimmunity should not be confused with alloimmunity.
While a high level of autoimmunity is unhealthy, a low level of autoimmunity may actually be beneficial. First, low-level autoimmunity might aid in the recognition of neoplastic cells by CD8+ T cells, and thus reduce the incidence of cancer.
Second, autoimmunity may have a role in allowing a rapid immune response in the early stages of an infection when the availability of foreign antigens limits the response (i.e., when there are few pathogens present). In their study, Stefanova et al. (2002) injected an anti-MHC Class II antibody into mice expressing a single type of MHC Class II molecule (H-2b) to temporarily prevent CD4+ T cell-MHC interaction. Naive CD4+ T cells (those that have not encountered any antigens before) recovered from these mice 36 hours post-anti-MHC administration showed decreased responsiveness to the antigen pigeon cytochrome C peptide, as determined by Zap-70 phosphorylation, proliferation, and Interleukin-2 production. Thus Stefanova et al. (2002) demonstrated that self-MHC recognition (which, if too strong may contribute to autoimmune disease) maintains the responsiveness of CD4+ T cells when foreign antigens are absent. This idea of autoimmunity is conceptually similar to play-fighting. The play-fighting of young cubs (TCR and self-MHC) may result in a few scratches or scars (low-level-autoimmunity), but is beneficial in the long-term as it primes the young cub for proper fights in the future.
Pioneering work by Noel Rose and Witebsky in New York, and Roitt and Doniach at University College London provided clear evidence that, at least in terms of antibody-producing B lymphocytes, diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and thyrotoxicosis are associated with of loss of immunological tolerance, which is the ability of an individual to ignore 'self', while reacting to 'non-self'. This breakage leads to the immune system's mounting an effective and specific immune response against self determinants. The exact genesis of immunological tolerance is still elusive, but several theories have been proposed since the mid-twentieth century to explain its origin.
Three hypotheses have gained widespread attention among immunologists:
- Clonal Deletion theory, proposed by Burnet, according to which self-reactive lymphoid cells are destroyed during the development of the immune system in an individual. For their work Frank M. Burnet and Peter B. Medawar were awarded the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for discovery of acquired immunological tolerance".
- Clonal Anergy theory, proposed by Nossal, in which self-reactive T- or B-cells become inactivated in the normal individual and cannot amplify the immune response.
- Idiotype Network theory, proposed by Jerne, wherein a network of antibodies capable of neutralizing self-reactive antibodies exists naturally within the body.
In addition, two other theories are under intense investigation:
- The so-called "Clonal Ignorance" theory, according to which host immune responses are directed to ignore self-antigens
- The "Suppressor population" or "Regulatory T cell" theories, wherein regulatory T-lymphocytes (commonly CD4+FoxP3+ cells, among others) function to prevent, downregulate, or limit autoaggressive immune responses in the immune system.
Tolerance can also be differentiated into 'Central' and 'Peripheral' tolerance, on whether or not the above-stated checking mechanisms operate in the central lymphoid organs (Thymus and Bone Marrow) or the peripheral lymphoid organs (lymph node, spleen, etc., where self-reactive B-cells may be destroyed). It must be emphasised that these theories are not mutually exclusive, and evidence has been mounting suggesting that all of these mechanisms may actively contribute to vertebrate immunological tolerance.
A puzzling feature of the documented loss of tolerance seen in spontaneous human autoimmunity is that it is almost entirely restricted to the autoantibody responses produced by B lymphocytes. Loss of tolerance by T cells has been extremely hard to demonstrate, and where there is evidence for an abnormal T cell response it is usually not to the antigen recognised by autoantibodies. Thus, in rheumatoid arthritis there are autoantibodies to IgG Fc but apparently no corresponding T cell response. In systemic lupus there are autoantibodies to DNA, which cannot evoke a T cell response, and limited evidence for T cell responses implicates nucleoprotein antigens. In Celiac disease there are autoantibodies to tissue transglutaminase but the T cell response is to the foreign protein gliadin. This disparity has led to the idea that human autoimmune disease is in most cases (with probable exceptions including type I diabetes) based on a loss of B cell tolerance which makes use of normal T cell responses to foreign antigens in a variety of aberrant ways.
Certain individuals are genetically susceptible to developing autoimmune diseases. This susceptibility is associated with multiple genes plus other risk factors. Genetically-predisposed individuals do not always develop autoimmune diseases.
Three main sets of genes are suspected in many autoimmune diseases. These genes are related to:
The first two, which are involved in the recognition of antigens, are inherently variable and susceptible to recombination. These variations enable the immune system to respond to a very wide variety of invaders, but may also give rise to lymphocytes capable of self-reactivity.
Scientists such as H. McDevitt, G. Nepom, J. Bell and J. Todd have also provided strong evidence to suggest that certain MHC class II allotypes are strongly correlated with
- HLA DR2 is strongly positively correlated with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, narcolepsy and multiple sclerosis, and negatively correlated with DM Type 1.
- HLA DR3 is correlated strongly with Sjögren's syndrome, myasthenia gravis, SLE, and DM Type 1.
- HLA DR4 is correlated with the genesis of rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 diabetes mellitus, and pemphigus vulgaris.
Fewer correlations exist with MHC class I molecules. The most notable and consistent is the association between HLA B27 and ankylosing spondylitis. Correlations may exist between polymorphisms within class II MHC promoters and autoimmune disease.
The contributions of genes outside the MHC complex remain the subject of research, in animal models of disease (Linda Wicker's extensive genetic studies of diabetes in the NOD mouse), and in patients (Brian Kotzin's linkage analysis of susceptibility to SLE).
|Ratio of female/male incidence
of autoimmune diseases
|Multiple sclerosis (MS)||2/1|
|Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)||9/1|
A person's sex also seems to have some role in the development of autoimmunity, classifying most autoimmune diseases as sex-related diseases. Nearly 75% of the more than 23.5 million Americans who suffer from autoimmune disease are women, although it is less-frequently acknowledged that millions of men also suffer from these diseases. According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA), autoimmune diseases that develop in men tend to be more severe. A few autoimmune diseases that men are just as or more likely to develop as women, include: ankylosing spondylitis, type 1 diabetes mellitus, Wegener's granulomatosis, Crohn's disease and psoriasis.
The reasons for the sex role in autoimmunity are unclear. Women appear to generally mount larger inflammatory responses than men when their immune systems are triggered, increasing the risk of autoimmunity. Involvement of sex steroids is indicated by that many autoimmune diseases tend to fluctuate in accordance with hormonal changes, for example, during pregnancy, in the menstrual cycle, or when using oral contraception. A history of pregnancy also appears to leave a persistent increased risk for autoimmune disease. It has been suggested that the slight exchange of cells between mothers and their children during pregnancy may induce autoimmunity. This would tip the gender balance in the direction of the female.
Another theory suggests the female high tendency to get autoimmunity is due to an imbalanced X chromosome inactivation. The X-inactivation skew theory, proposed by Princeton University's Jeff Stewart, has recently been confirmed experimentally in scleroderma and autoimmune thyroiditis. Other complex X-linked genetic susceptibility mechanisms are proposed and under investigation.
An interesting inverse relationship exists between infectious diseases and autoimmune diseases. In areas where multiple infectious diseases are endemic, autoimmune diseases are quite rarely seen. The reverse, to some extent, seems to hold true. The hygiene hypothesis attributes these correlations to the immune manipulating strategies of pathogens. Whilst such an observation has been variously termed as spurious and ineffective, according to some studies, parasite infection is associated with reduced activity of autoimmune disease.
The putative mechanism is that the parasite attenuates the host immune response in order to protect itself. This may provide a serendipitous benefit to a host that also suffers from autoimmune disease. The details of parasite immune modulation are not yet known, but may include secretion of anti-inflammatory agents or interference with the host immune signaling.
A paradoxical observation has been the strong association of certain microbial organisms with autoimmune diseases. For example, Klebsiella pneumoniae and coxsackievirus B have been strongly correlated with ankylosing spondylitis and diabetes mellitus type 1, respectively. This has been explained by the tendency of the infecting organism to produce super-antigens that are capable of polyclonal activation of B-lymphocytes, and production of large amounts of antibodies of varying specificities, some of which may be self-reactive (see below).
Certain chemical agents and drugs can also be associated with the genesis of autoimmune conditions, or conditions that simulate autoimmune diseases. The most striking of these is the drug-induced lupus erythematosus. Usually, withdrawal of the offending drug cures the symptoms in a patient.
Cigarette smoking is now established as a major risk factor for both incidence and severity of rheumatoid arthritis. This may relate to abnormal citrullination of proteins, since the effects of smoking correlate with the presence of antibodies to citrullinated peptides.
Pathogenesis of autoimmunity
Several mechanisms are thought to be operative in the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases, against a backdrop of genetic predisposition and environmental modulation. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss each of these mechanisms exhaustively, but a summary of some of the important mechanisms have been described:
- T-Cell Bypass - A normal immune system requires the activation of B-cells by T-cells before the former can produce antibodies in large quantities. This requirement of a T-cell can be bypassed in rare instances, such as infection by organisms producing super-antigens, which are capable of initiating polyclonal activation of B-cells, or even of T-cells, by directly binding to the β-subunit of T-cell receptors in a non-specific fashion.
- T-Cell-B-Cell discordance - A normal immune response is assumed to involve B and T cell responses to the same antigen, even if we know that B cells and T cells recognise very different things: conformations on the surface of a molecule for B cells and pre-processed peptide fragments of proteins for T cells. However, there is nothing as far as we know that requires this. All that is required is that a B cell recognising antigen X endocytoses and processes a protein Y (normally =X) and presents it to a T cell. Roosnek and Lanzavecchia showed that B cells recognising IgGFc could get help from any T cell responding to an antigen co-endocytosed with IgG by the B cell as part of an immune complex. In coeliac disease it seems likely that B cells recognising tissue transglutamine are helped by T cells recognising gliadin.
- Aberrant B cell receptor-mediated feedback - A feature of human autoimmune disease is that it is largely restricted to a small group of antigens, several of which have known signaling roles in the immune response (DNA, C1q, IgGFc, Ro, Con. A receptor, Peanut agglutinin receptor(PNAR)). This fact gave rise to the idea that spontaneous autoimmunity may result when the binding of antibody to certain antigens leads to aberrant signals being fed back to parent B cells through membrane bound ligands. These ligands include B cell receptor (for antigen), IgG Fc receptors, CD21, which binds complement C3d, Toll-like receptors 9 and 7 (which can bind DNA and nucleoproteins) and PNAR. More indirect aberrant activation of B cells can also be envisaged with autoantibodies to acetyl choline receptor (on thymic myoid cells) and hormone and hormone binding proteins. Together with the concept of T-cell-B-cell discordance this idea forms the basis of the hypothesis of self-perpetuating autoreactive B cells. Autoreactive B cells in spontaneous autoimmunity are seen as surviving because of subversion both of the T cell help pathway and of the feedback signal through B cell receptor, thereby overcoming the negative signals responsible for B cell self-tolerance without necessarily requiring loss of T cell self-tolerance.
- Molecular Mimicry - An exogenous antigen may share structural similarities with certain host antigens; thus, any antibody produced against this antigen (which mimics the self-antigens) can also, in theory, bind to the host antigens, and amplify the immune response. The idea of molecular mimicry arose in the context of Rheumatic Fever, which follows infection with Group A beta-haemolytic streptococci. Although rheumatic fever has been attributed to molecular mimicry for half a century no antigen has been formally identified (if anything too many have been proposed). Moreover, the complex tissue distribution of the disease (heart, joint, skin, basal ganglia) argues against a cardiac specific antigen. It remains entirely possible that the disease is due to e.g. an unusual interaction between immune complexes, complement components and endothelium.
- Idiotype Cross-Reaction - Idiotypes are antigenic epitopes found in the antigen-binding portion (Fab) of the immunoglobulin molecule. Plotz and Oldstone presented evidence that autoimmunity can arise as a result of a cross-reaction between the idiotype on an antiviral antibody and a host cell receptor for the virus in question. In this case, the host-cell receptor is envisioned as an internal image of the virus, and the anti-idiotype antibodies can react with the host cells.
- Cytokine Dysregulation - Cytokines have been recently divided into two groups according to the population of cells whose functions they promote: Helper T-cells type 1 or type 2. The second category of cytokines, which include IL-4, IL-10 and TGF-β (to name a few), seem to have a role in prevention of exaggeration of pro-inflammatory immune responses.
- Dendritic cell apoptosis - immune system cells called dendritic cells present antigens to active lymphocytes. Dendritic cells that are defective in apoptosis can lead to inappropriate systemic lymphocyte activation and consequent decline in self-tolerance.
- Epitope spreading or epitope drift - when the immune reaction changes from targeting the primary epitope to also targeting other epitopes. In contrast to molecular mimicry, the other epitopes need not be structurally similar to the primary one.
Autoimmune diseases can be broadly divided into systemic and organ-specific or localised autoimmune disorders, depending on the principal clinico-pathologic features of each disease.
- Systemic autoimmune diseases include SLE, Sjögren's syndrome, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, and dermatomyositis. These conditions tend to be associated with autoantibodies to antigens which are not tissue specific. Thus although polymyositis is more or less tissue specific in presentation, it may be included in this group because the autoantigens are often ubiquitous t-RNA synthetases.
- Local syndromes which affect a specific organ or tissue:
Using the traditional “organ specific” and “non-organ specific” classification scheme, many diseases have been lumped together under the autoimmune disease umbrella. However, many chronic inflammatory human disorders lack the telltale associations of B and T cell driven immunopathology. In the last decade it has been firmly established that tissue "inflammation against self" does not necessarily rely on abnormal T and B cell responses.
This has led to the recent proposal that the spectrum of autoimmunity should be viewed along an “immunological disease continuum,” with classical autoimmune diseases at one extreme and diseases driven by the innate immune system at the other extreme. Within this scheme, the full spectrum of autoimmunity can be included. Many common human autoimmune diseases can be seen to have a substantial innate immune mediated immunopathology using this new scheme. This new classification scheme has implications for understanding disease mechanisms and for therapy development (see PLoS Medicine article. http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0030297).
Diagnosis of autoimmune disorders largely rests on accurate history and physical examination of the patient, and high index of suspicion against a backdrop of certain abnormalities in routine laboratory tests (example, elevated C-reactive protein). In several systemic disorders, serological assays which can detect specific autoantibodies can be employed. Localised disorders are best diagnosed by immunofluorescence of biopsy specimens. Autoantibodies are used to diagnose many autoimmune diseases. The levels of autoantibodies are measured to determine the progress of the disease.
Treatments for autoimmune disease have traditionally been immunosuppressive, anti-inflammatory, or palliative. Non-immunological therapies, such as hormone replacement in Hashimoto's thyroiditis or Type 1 diabetes mellitus treat outcomes of the autoaggressive response, thus these are palliative treatments. Dietary manipulation limits the severity of celiac disease. Steroidal or NSAID treatment limits inflammatory symptoms of many diseases. IVIG is used for CIDP and GBS. Specific immunomodulatory therapies, such as the TNFα antagonists (e.g. etanercept), the B cell depleting agent rituximab, the anti-IL-6 receptor tocilizumab and the costimulation blocker abatacept have been shown to be useful in treating RA. Some of these immunotherapies may be associated with increased risk of adverse effects, such as susceptibility to infection.
Helminthic therapy is an experimental approach that involves inoculation of the patient with specific parasitic intestinal nematodes (helminths). There are currently two closely-related treatments available, inoculation with either Necator americanus, commonly known as hookworms, or Trichuris Suis Ova, commonly known as Pig Whipworm Eggs.
T cell vaccination is also being explored as a possible future therapy for auto-immune disorders.