Flu season brings all sorts of recommendations from medical professionals: keep your hands sanitized, get plenty of rest, hydrate properly, take vitamin supplements, etc. All of this is sound advice and will help your immune system stay in good condition to fight potential illness, but what about the genetic component of human immunity? How does genetics factor into a person’s resistance against illness and is there anything that can be done to improve this native resistance?
First, it is necessary to establish that there is no single genetic component to human immunity and that genetics affects your immune system in an unfathomable number of ways depending on your ancestry. The immune system operates as a series of barriers and filters to prevent infection, as well as a response mechanism to fight infection once it has taken hold. Our skin and mucus membranes (such as the ones in our nose) help prevent infection by forming a protective barrier over the body’s more susceptible tissues. A second layer of defense called the adaptive immune system prompts the body’s production of immune response cells (white blood cells) as well as overseeing the white blood cells’ storage and transportation. Other response mechanisms may be engaged depending on the nature of the invading pathogen. The integrity of all these tissues is determined not by one single genetic component, but by many.
Though the ways in which genetics and human immunity interact may be extremely complex, medical scientists have established linkages between resistance to many illnesses and inherited genes. Autoimmune diseases, which are conditions in which the body attacks its own tissues, are heavily correlated with family genetics. Researchers have focused their efforts on populations that have had relatively little influx of immigration (such as the Sardinians) to reduce the possibility that other factors may be responsible for certain genetic inheritance.
Goals for autoimmune disease research, as with other serious health conditions, centers on finding permanent cures and until such a point is reached, improving patient quality of life as much as possible. Nanotechnology, an emerging field in which scientists change the properties of matter at extremely small scales, may hold the key to addressing many of these genetic deficiencies. Medical researchers are working on nanotechnology that can be used to both detect and repair severe genetic deficiencies before they have a chance to harm the developing fetus. Similar technology, along with injections of human stem cells, may be able to detect and repair these defects in older adults as well.
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