Imagine you are stepping outside on a beautiful summer’s day, you admire the blue skies and take a deep breath in. Before you’ve even had a chance to put on your sunglasses, your nose is streaming, your eyes are itching, sneezes follow one after the other. What’s going on?
With even Manchester enjoying three (pretty much) solid days of sunshine it seems like summer has arrived, but for some this is a mixed blessing. An estimated 1 in 5 people in the UK suffer from hay fever (1), also called seasonal allergic rhinitis. In these people an allergic reaction to pollen can cause itchy eyes, blocked or runny noses and sneezing. In more severe cases, pollen allergies even trigger asthma attacks. If you are one of these unlucky people, I’m afraid your immune system is to blame. Allergies are caused by an immune reaction to something relatively harmless. The good news is that understanding how this works has helped provide some relief to those itchy noses, and may even reveal a cure for some allergies.
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Your immune cells are part of a powerful and complex coordinated system. You could think of it like a shiny new smartphone, all the pieces working together to respond when required. If your smartphone developed a fault and kept ringing or buzzing, refusing to turn off, what would you do?
Autoimmune diseases are caused by your immune system reacting when it shouldn’t. Cells and proteins that would normally be seen as safe are instead viewed as dangerous invaders, and attacked and destroyed. This leads to problems like type 1 diabetes, caused by your immune system attacking the cells which make insulin and keep blood sugar steady , multiple sclerosis, caused by attacks on nerve cells leading to muscle weakness, or rheumatoid arthritis, where misplaced inflammation causes joint pain and swelling.
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Today I actually managed to drag myself out of bed for a run in the early morning sunshine. I spotted quite a few fellow runners braving the cold, but it’s not just humans who’ve been pacing it out lately. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark and other institutions have been running mice on wheels to try to understand how exercise can help to fight cancer, and it looks like the immune system is at play again.
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