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What Is Systems Immunology?

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  • Written By: Andrew Kirmayer
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2016
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Systems immunology is generally the scientific study of the different types of cells, biological signals, and molecules that interact as part of the body’s immune system. Researchers attempt to mathematically model how each of these function and react to new vaccines and drugs, for example. General knowledge of how each cell type normally interacts with another, and with many different proteins and enzymes, is typically essential as well. The field is often considered part of the field of systems biology, in which scientists study the interaction and function of every part of the body.

In addition to mathematics, scientists who specialize in systems immunology often use computers to analyze various biological components. Microchips can be used to analyze molecules, while a variety of other laboratory equipment is often applied to mix in different compounds and monitor the reactions that take place. Researchers sometimes use such techniques to pick out drugs to study. People in clinical trials can also be monitored with sophisticated equipment to detect the response of the immune system to drugs in development.

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Laboratories around the world study systems immunology, often to find drugs effective against various infections and diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis, and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Such facilities often depend on local and regional funding to operate. To work in the field, one often requires advanced academic experience, typically at the post doctorate level. Knowledge of thousands of genes that code for proteins, as well as the responses that occur at a systemic and cellular level, is generally necessary.

The immune system consists of cells that attack foreign organisms, called phagocytes, as well as those that can remember the molecular signature of previous invading subjects, called lymphocytes. Some of these look for viruses and bacteria, for example, while others respond after an infection has been identified. The responses are typically dependent on proteins called antibodies. An assortment of enzymes and other proteins are normally involved in the signaling between cells, and the starting and stopping of an immune response.

Computers are often used to model the interaction of genes, cells, proteins, and foreign substances, as well as predict how the immune system will respond. Systems immunology can be applied to treating a patient as well as diagnosing him or her with a disease. Research scientists who perform systems immunology work often collaborate with experts in pharmacology, chemistry, and clinical trial design, while specialists in computers and biology are often familiar with concepts in both fields.

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