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Rice University

Fundamentals of Immunology: Death by Friendly Fire

Rice University via edX

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The immune system is very powerful and very versatile. Most people forget it is just as capable of destroying your own cells as it is those of a pathogen.

In this biology and life sciences course, we’ll flip the basic question of, “How does the immune system protect you?” to, “How can your immune system endanger you?”

First, we will look at basic mechanisms that determine whether the immune system is roused to action or instructed to stand down, including the roles of inflammasomes and T regulatory cells and the results of mutation to genes and their importance in producing regulatory proteins. Then, we will apply these insights to explain the etiology and treatment of autoimmune diseases and look at a variety of misdirected immune attacks, including allergies, attacks on red blood cells and cellular responses that can produce damage ranging from rashes to autoimmune cellular destruction. Finally we will discuss the protection of transplants from an immune system that views them as foreign invaders instead of necessary replacements.


Week 1: How the immune assesses danger and responds to it, and conversely how the immune system identifies and prevents hostile responses to non-threats.  The mechanisms discussed include actions of cells and proteins and the effects of mutation of genes important to the process.
Week 2: Survey of the causes and symptoms of nine autoimmune diseases, include MS, lupus and Type I diabetes, followed by a discussion of underlying immune disturbances that lead to these diseases and a variety of treatment strategies.
Week 3: Present the mechanisms, characteristics and treatments of the four classic categories of hypersensitivity: allergy, mis-directed ADCC, excess antibody complexes and delayed or cellular responses. We will also look at the hygiene hypothesis and consider our defenses again tuberculosis in this context.
Week 4: How we protect transplanted tissues and organs.  These are, by definition, foreign and a natural target of the immune system.  We will begin with the development of testing for specific antigen, apply this to tissue typing and predicting donor-organ sensitivity.  Then we will look at therapies designed to protect organs, comparing them to similar strategies in treating autoimmune diseases and finally survey some specific transplants.
Because this is the third course in a series exploring the fundamental of immunology, we will also include the outlines from the two previous courses.

Taught by

Alma Moon Novotny


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