12 Fantastic Facts About the Immune System

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If it weren't for our immune system, none of us would live very long. Not only does the immune system protect us from external pathogens like viruses, bacteria, and parasites, it also battles cells that have mutated due to illnesses, like cancer, within the body.

Here are 12 fighting facts about the immune system.

1. THE IMMUNE SYSTEM SAVES LIVES.

The immune system is a complex network of tissues and organs that spreads throughout the entire body. In a nutshell, it works like this: A series of "sensors" within the system detects an intruding pathogen, like bacteria or a virus. Then the sensors signal other parts of the system to kill the pathogen and eliminate the infection.

"The immune system is being bombarded by all sorts of microbes all the time," Russell Vance, professor of immunology at University of California, Berkeley and an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, tells Mental Floss. "Yet, even though we're not aware of it, it's saving our lives every day, and doing a remarkably good job of it."

2. BEFORE SCIENTISTS UNDERSTOOD THE IMMUNE SYSTEM, ILLNESS WAS CHALKED UP TO UNBALANCED HUMORS.

Long before physicians realized how invisible pathogens interacted with the body's system for fighting them off, doctors diagnosed all ills of the body and the mind according to the balance of "four humors": melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric, or sanguine. These criteria, devised by the Greek philosopher Hippocrates, were divided between the four elements, which were linked to bodily fluids (a.k.a. humors): earth (black bile), air (blood), water (phlegm) and fire (yellow bile), which also carried properties of cold, hot, moist, or dry. Through a combination of guesswork and observation, physicians would diagnose patients' humors and prescribe treatment that most likely did little to support the immune system's ability to resist infection.

3. TWO MEN WHO UNRAVELED THE IMMUNE SYSTEM'S FUNCTIONS WERE BITTER RIVALS.

Two scientists who discovered key functions of the immune system, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, should have been able to see their work as complementary, but they wound up rivals. Pasteur, a French microbiologist, was famous for his experiments demonstrating the mechanism of vaccines using weakened versions of the microbes. Koch, a German physician, established four essential conditions under which pathogenic bacteria can infect hosts, and used them to identify the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacterium that causes tuberculosis. Though both helped establish the germ theory of disease—one of the foundations of modern medicine today—Pasteur and Koch's feud may have been aggravated by nationalism, a language barrier, criticisms of each other's work, and possibly a hint of jealousy.

4. SPECIALIZED BLOOD CELLS ARE YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM'S GREATEST WEAPON.

The most powerful weapons in your immune system's arsenal are white blood cells, divided into two main types: lymphocytes, which create antigens for specific pathogens and kill them or escort them out of the body; and phagocytes, which ingest harmful bacteria. White blood cells not only attack foreign pathogens, but recognize these interlopers the next time they meet them and respond more quickly. Many of these immune cells are produced in your bone marrow but also in the spleen, lymph nodes, and thymus, and are stored in some of these tissues and other areas of the body. In the lymph nodes, which are located throughout your body but most noticeably in your armpits, throat, and groin, lymphatic fluid containing white blood cells flows through vein-like tubules to escort foreign invaders out.

5. THE SPLEEN HELPS YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM WORK.

Though you can live without the spleen, an organ that lies between stomach and diaphragm, it's better to hang onto it for your immune function. According to Adriana Medina, a doctor who specializes in hematology and oncology at the Alvin and Lois Lapidus Cancer Institute at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, your spleen is "one big lymph node" that makes new white blood cells, and cleans out old blood cells from the body.

It's also a place where immune cells congregate. "Because the immune cells are spread out through the body," Vance says, "eventually they need to communicate with each other." They do so in both the spleen and lymph nodes.

6. YOU HAVE IMMUNE CELLS IN ALL OF YOUR TISSUES.

While immune cells may congregate more in lymph nodes than elsewhere, "every tissue in your body has immune cells stationed in it or circulating through it, constantly roving for signs of attack," Vance explains. These cells also circulate through the blood. The reason for their widespread presence is that there are thousands of different pathogens that might infect us, from bacteria to viruses to parasites. "To eliminate each of those different kinds of threats requires specialized detectors," he says.

7. HOW FRIENDLY YOU'RE FEELING COULD BE LINKED TO YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM.

From an evolutionary perspective, humans' high sociability may have less to do with our bigger brains, and more to do with our immune system's exposure to a greater number of bacteria and other pathogens.

Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have theorized that interferon gamma (IG), the immune cytokine that helps the immune system fight invaders, was linked to social behavior, which is one of the ways we become exposed to pathogens.

In mice, they found IG acted as a kind of brake to the brain's prefrontal cortex, essentially stopping aberrant hyperactivity that can cause negative changes in social behavior. When they blocked the IG molecule, the mice's prefrontal cortexes became hyperactive, resulting in less sociability. When they restored the function, the mice's brains returned to normal, as did their social behavior.

8. YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM MIGHT RECRUIT UNLIKELY ORGANS—LIKE THE APPENDIX—INTO ITS SERVICE.

The appendix gets a bad rap as a vestigial organ that does nothing but occasionally go septic and create a need for immediate surgery. But the appendix may help keep your gut in good shape. According to Gabrielle Belz, professor of molecular immunology at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia, research by Duke University's Randal Bollinger and Bill Parker suggests the appendix houses symbiotic bacteria that are important for overall gut health—especially after infections wipe out the gut's good microbes. Special immune cells known as innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) in the appendix may help to repopulate the gut with healthy bacteria and put the gut back on track to recovery.

9. GUT BACTERIA HAS BEEN SHOWN TO BOOST IMMUNE SYSTEMS IN MICE.

Researchers at the University of Chicago noticed that one group of mice in their lab had a stronger response to a cancer treatment than other mice. They eventually traced the reason to a strain of bacteria—Bifidobacterium—in the mice's guts that boosted the animals' immune system to such a degree they could compare it to anti-cancer drugs called checkpoint inhibitors, which keep the immune system from overreacting.

To test their theory, they transferred fecal matter from the robust mice to the stomachs of less immune-strengthened mice, with positive results: The treated mice mounted stronger immune responses and tumor growth slowed. When they compared the bacterial transfer effects with the effects of a checkpoint inhibitor drug, they found that the bacteria treatment was just as effective. The researchers believe that, with further study, the same effect could be seen in human cancer patients.

10. SCIENTISTS ARE TRYING TO HARNESS THE IMMUNE SYSTEM'S "PAC-MAN" CELLS TO TREAT CANCER.

Aggressive pediatric tumors are difficult to treat due to the toxicity of chemotherapy, but some researchers are hoping to develop effective treatments without the harmful side effects. Stanford researchers designed a study around a recently discovered molecule known as CD47, a protein expressed on the surface of all cells, and how it interacts with macrophages, white blood cells that kill abnormal cells. "Think of the macrophages as the Pac-Man of the immune system," Samuel Cheshier, lead study author and assistant professor of neurosurgery at Stanford Medicine, tells Mental Floss.

CD47 sends the immune system's macrophages a "don't eat me" signal. Cancer cells fool the immune system into not destroying them by secreting high amounts of CD47. When Cheshier and his team blocked the CD47 signals on cancer cells, the macrophages could identify the cancer cells and eat them, without toxic side effects to healthy cells. The treatment successfully shrank all five of the common pediatric tumors, without the nasty side effects of chemotherapy.

11. A NEW THERAPY FOR TYPE 1 DIABETES TRICKS THE IMMUNE SYSTEM.

In those with type 1 diabetes, the body attacks its own pancreatic cells, interrupting its normal ability to produce insulin in response to glucose. In a 2016 paper, researchers at MIT, in collaboration with Boston's Children's Hospital, successfully designed a new material that allows them to encapsulate and transplant healthy pancreatic "islet" cells into diabetic mice without triggering an immune response. Made from seaweed, the substance is benign enough that the body doesn't react to it, and porous enough to allow the islet cells to be placed in the abdomen of mice, where they restore the pancreatic function. Senior author Daniel Anderson, an associate professor at MIT, said in a statement that this approach "has the potential to provide [human] diabetics with a new pancreas that is protected from the immune system, which would allow them to control their blood sugar without taking drugs. That's the dream."

12. IMMUNOTHERAPY IS ON THE CUTTING EDGE OF IMMUNE SYSTEM RESEARCH.

Over the last few years, research in the field of immunology has focused on developing cancer treatments using immunotherapy. This method engineers the patient's own normal cells to attack the cancer cells. Vance says the technique could be used for many more conditions. "I feel like that could be just the tip of the iceberg," he says. "If we can understand better what the cancer and immunotherapy is showing, maybe we can go in there and manipulate the immune responses and get good outcomes for other diseases, too."

The Surgeon Who Removed His Own Appendix

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On February 15, 1921, Dr. Evan O’Neill Kane decided to test a theory. At the time, people with heart conditions and other serious ailments could not undergo most basic surgeries because general anesthesia was considered too dangerous. Rather than knocking these patients out, Kane wondered if he could simply give them a local anesthetic.

There was only one way to be sure: Kane decided to give himself an appendectomy.

As the chief surgeon at Kane Summit Hospital in Pennsylvania, Kane could probably perform the procedure blindfolded. The 60-year-old physician had performed more than 4000 appendectomies over his 37-year medical career. (Besides, the timing was right: He had chronic appendicitis and the organ needed to be removed anyway.)

For his experiment, Kane decided to numb the area with novocaine. “Sitting on the operating table propped up by pillows, and with a nurse holding his head forward that he might see, he calmly cut into his abdomen, carefully dissecting the tissues and closing the blood vessels as he worked his way in,” The New York Times reported. “Locating the appendix, he pulled it up, cut [it] off, and bent the stump under.” Finished with the dirty work, he let his assistants tie up the wound.

When a reporter visited a few hours later, Kane declared he was “feeling fine” [PDF].

Overall, he was pleased with the procedure. “I now know exactly how the patient feels when being operated upon under local treatment, and that was one of the objects I had in mind when I determined to perform the operation myself,” Kane later explained to The New York Times [PDF]. “I now fully understand just how to use the anesthesia to best advantage when removing the appendix from a person who has heart or other trouble that prohibits the use of a complete anesthesia.”

This was hardly the beginning—or end—to Kane’s career as his own surgeon. Two years earlier, he had amputated his own infected finger. And 10 years after the self-appendectomy, when he was 70, Kane calmly operated on his own hernia, joking with nurses throughout the whole 50-minute operation. Thirty-six hours later, he was back in the operating room, this time patching up other people.

Kane wouldn't be the last doctor to scoop out his own appendix. In 1961, Leonid Rogozov, the sole physician at the Soviet Union's Antarctic research station, performed an emergency self-appendectomy with the station's meteorologist and mechanic as his assistants [PDF]. More recently, Beirut surgeon Dr. Ira Kahn allegedly removed the organ himself in 1986. Unlike Kane, however, Kahn didn’t put himself under the knife for the sake of a medical experiment: Stuck in a traffic jam and unable to make it to the hospital for emergency surgery, he performed the procedure from the comfort of his car.

10 Smart Facts About Wisdom Teeth

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Like puberty and your first heartbreak, the painful process of getting your wisdom teeth removed is one of those cumbersome coming-of-age rituals that many people are forced to endure. But why do we have wisdom teeth when they seem to only cause problems? Read on to find out more about the humble third molar—the last tooth many of us get as adults.

1. THEY HAVEN’T SERVED ANY PURPOSE FOR HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF YEARS.

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a prehistoric man or woman. You subsist largely on raw meat, roots, and leaves. You’d need some pretty powerful chompers to cut up your food, right? That was where your third molars—also known as wisdom teeth—came in. Today, our palates are a little more refined, and we prefer softer foods (think avocado toast and smoothies). Plus, modern cooking tools have put our wisdom teeth out of business.

They’re not just pointless, though—they’re also problematic. Wisdom teeth are a “scar of human evolution,” according to Princeton University researcher Alan Mann. About 800,000 to 200,000 years ago, early humans’ brains started growing at a rapid pace—so much so that they ballooned to three times their original size. When that happened, it changed the shape of the braincase (the back part of the skull) and its position relative to the dental arcade (rows of teeth). The dental arcade shortened, and suddenly there was no longer enough room for third molars. And since the genes that determine the makeup of our teeth evolve separately from those that control brain development, humans were stuck dealing with the consequences of a crowded mouth, according to Live Science.

2. NATURE MAY EVENTUALLY SORT IT OUT, THOUGH.

On the bright side, scientists say evolution may eventually take care of the problem, meaning that people in the future would not develop wisdom teeth. It’s anyone’s guess as to when this will occur, though. “On the evolutionary scale, if I had to predict down the road—centuries probably—wisdom teeth are going to be one of the things that humans probably won’t have anymore,” Dr. William McCormick, assistant clinical professor at West Virginia University’s School of Dentistry, tells Mental Floss.

3. THE NUMBER OF WISDOM TEETH VARIES FROM PERSON TO PERSON ...

It’s possible that you have one, two, three, four, or none at all. Another possibility, although it’s rare, is to have more than four wisdom teeth, which are called supernumerary teeth. “In my career, I have seen two cases where patients have had fourth molars—or two sets of wisdom teeth,” McCormick says. (Comparatively, humans’ ancestors had quite the mouthful, with 12 wisdom teeth in total.)

According to McCormick, genetic factors like jaw size might determine the number of wisdom teeth that a person has. Your lineage may also have something to do with it. Practically no Aboriginal Tasmanians have third molars, but almost 100 percent of indigenous Mexicans have at least one wisdom tooth. African Americans and Asian Americans are also more likely than people of European descent to have fewer than four wisdom teeth. This variation can be attributed to a random genetic mutation that arose thousands of years ago, thereby preventing the formation of wisdom teeth. This mutation is more prevalent in certain populations.

4. ... AS DOES THE NUMBER OF ROOTS THAT EACH TOOTH HAS.

The roots are the part of the tooth that form first, and then push the bud (the part that's visible in your mouth) through your gums. While wisdom teeth typically have two or three roots, they can have more. McCormick says he personally removed his wife’s wisdom teeth in the ‘70s and was surprised to see that one of them had five roots. “It looked like a spider. It was not a pleasant extraction,” he says.

For that reason, if wisdom teeth need to be removed, it’s easier to do so before the roots start to take hold. “When the roots are totally formed, they’re anchored like a tree that’s been in your backyard for 100 years,” says Dr. Ron Good, an orthodontist in southwestern Pennsylvania who runs a family practice with his brother, Dr. Bob Good. On the other hand, surgeons want some roots to grab hold of, because removing a tiny tooth bud is “like extracting a marble,” Dr. Ron tells Mental Floss.

5. YOUR WISDOM TEETH CAN ERUPT AT ANY TIME.

According to Guinness World Records, the oldest person to ever grow a wisdom tooth was 94 years old. McCormick says there's a wide variation in ages when eruption occurs; he once had a 65-year-old patient with dentures whose wisdom tooth had started to erupt (poke through the gums). “They’re crazy little beasts. You never know what you’re going to see.”

Apparently, wisdom teeth have been acting erratically for thousands of years. Aristotle documented this phenomenon in his book The History of Animals: “Cases have been known in women upwards of 80 years old where at the very close of life the wisdom-teeth have come up, causing great pain in their coming; and cases have been known of the like phenomenon in men too.”

In most cases, though, wisdom teeth erupt when you’re in your late teens or early twenties.

6. THE FIRST IMPACTED TOOTH WAS RECORDED ABOUT 15,000 YEARS AGO.

When wisdom teeth don’t have enough room to grow normally, they get stuck in the jaw and fail to erupt. These are called impacted teeth. The oldest known case of an impacted tooth was found in the skeleton of a 25- to 35-year-old woman who died some 15,000 years ago. This case cast doubt on the theory that impacted teeth are a modern ailment, caused by recent changes in our dietary habits.

7. SOME PHYSICIANS SAY THAT IMPACTED WISDOM TEETH SHOULD BE SURGICALLY REMOVED ...

Many people get their wisdom teeth removed, even if there isn’t any pain or discernible problem aside from impacting. Known as prophylactic surgery, this preventative practice is common in the U.S., but in recent years there has been some debate as to whether it’s necessary. One popular theory holds that most people either have problems with their wisdom teeth or will at some point in the future. “It’s hard to get a percentage, but probably 75 to 80 percent of people do not meet the criteria of being able to successfully maintain their wisdom teeth,” Dr. Louis K. Rafetto, who headed a task force on wisdom teeth, told The New York Times in 2011.

About 3.5 million extraction surgeries are performed each year, and according to another estimate, that adds up to be 10 million individual wisdom teeth pulled annually. Dr. Ron and Dr. Bob, of Good Orthodontics, are both of the opinion that wisdom teeth are ticking time bombs. “In our mind, we feel that wisdom teeth, in general, are of no value and are only potential problems,” Dr. Bob says. He added that third molars can interfere with your bite and cause your teeth to wear down, and in some cases, can also cause cysts, tumors, nerve damage, periodontal disease (affecting the gums and other areas around the teeth) and TMJ disorders (affecting the jaw joint). Plus, if your teeth are too crowded and you aren’t able to brush and floss them normally, it can lead to additional issues, such as gum disease and cavities.

8. ... WHILE OTHERS SAY YOU SHOULD AVOID IT.

Dental practitioners in the UK put an end to routine wisdom tooth extractions in 1998, citing a study at the University of York that reportedly found no scientific evidence to support the practice, according to the The Miami Herald.

Opposition is building in the U.S., too. Retired dentist Dr. Jay Friedman told How Stuff Works that only about 12 percent of wisdom teeth eventually cause problems. He compared that rate to the 7 to 14 percent of people who experience appendicitis, yet appendixes aren’t removed until they become a medical issue. If this seems to contradict Raffeto's statistics, it’s because there isn’t a whole lot of concrete data on the subject, and much of it is conflicting—so it really comes down to the individual physician’s and patient's preferences. “Ask three dentists the same question, and you’re going to get four different answers,” McCormick says with a laugh.

Like Friedman, McCormick doesn't support wisdom tooth removal unless there’s an infection, abscess, or other problem. “You have to weigh the surgical risk with what you’re going to try to accomplish,” he says. Like any surgery, wisdom tooth extraction poses a risk, although more serious complications, like fractured jaws and death, are extremely rare. McCormick says some possible side effects include nerve damage, infection, and dry socket (an infection of the tooth socket).

Despite the differing opinions in the dental community, McCormick, Dr. Ron, and Dr. Bob agreed that there’s no prescriptive rule for wisdom tooth removal, and that each patient should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

9. THEY’RE CALLED LOVE TEETH IN KOREAN.

In English, the name wisdom tooth conveys the idea that third molars come in later than other teeth, at a time when you’re older and (hopefully) wiser. Other languages don’t follow the same convention. In Korean, for example, the poetic name for third molars translates to “love teeth,” because it's around this time (late teens and early 20s) that one typically experiences their first love. The Japanese language also has a creative word for it: oyashirazu, or “unknown to parents,” since most people have already moved away from home by the time their wisdom teeth come in.

10. THEY’RE USED IN STEM CELL RESEARCH.

It turns out wisdom teeth aren't all bad. Although some of the research is still in the experimental phase, scientists are studying dental stem cells—which were discovered in 2003—to see if they can potentially be used to repair and regenerate tissue.

One study on mice, at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, found that stem cells taken from wisdom teeth could someday be used to repair corneas that have been scarred by infection or injury. Any clinical applications for humans would require more research, though.

"There are studies with dental pulp cells being used to treat neurological disorders and problems in the eye and other things,” Dr. Pamela Robey, of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, told CNN. “The problem is, these studies have really not been that rigorous ... the science needs a lot more work.”

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