Immunity has taken on increased medical importance since the mid-20th cent. For instance, the ability of the body to reject foreign matter is the main obstacle to the successful transplantation of certain tissues and organs. In blood transfusions the immune response is the cause of severe cell agglutination or rupture (lysis) when the blood donor and recipient are not matched for immunological compatibility (see blood groups). An immune reaction can also occur between a mother and baby (see Rh factor). Allergy, anaphylaxis, and serum sickness are all manifestations of undesirable immune responses.
Many degenerative disorders of aging, e.g., arthritis, are thought to be disorders of the immune system. In autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, individuals produce antibodies against their own proteins and cell components. Combinations of foreign proteins and their antibodies, called immune complexes, circulating through the body may cause glomerulonephritis (see nephritis) and Bright's disease (a kidney disease). Circulating immune complexes following infection by the hepatitis virus may cause arthritis.
At an extreme end of the spectrum of undesirable conditions is the lack of immunity itself. As a childhood condition, this absence can result from a congenital inability to produce antibodies or from severe disorders of the immune system, which leave individuals unprotected from disease. Such children usually die before adulthood. AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), which ultimately destroys the immune system, is caused by a retrovirus called the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which was identified in 1981. It infects the helper T cells, thereby disabling the immune system and leaving the person subject to a vast number of progressive complications and death.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.