Today's Reading

INTRODUCTION

Imagine waking up tomorrow, feeling a bit under the weather. An annoying pain in your throat, your nose is runny, you cough a bit. All in all, not bad enough to skip work, you think, as you step into the shower, pretty annoyed about how hard your life is. While you are totally not being a whiny little baby, your immune system is not complaining. It is busy keeping you alive so you can live to whine another day. And so, while intruders roam your body, killing hundreds of thousands of your cells, your immune system is organizing complex defenses, communicating over vast distances, activating intricate defense networks, and dishing out a swift death to millions, if not billions, of enemies. All while you are standing in the shower, mildly annoyed.

But this complexity is largely hidden.

Which is a real shame because there are not many things that have such a crucial impact on the quality of your life as your immune system. It is all-embracing and all-encompassing, protecting you from bothersome nuisances like the common cold, scratches, and cuts, to life-threatening stuff from cancer and pneumonia to deadly infections like COVID-19. Your immune system is as indispensable as your heart or your lungs. And actually, it is one of the largest and most widespread organ systems throughout your body, although we don't tend to think about it in these terms.

For most of us, the immune system is a vague and cloud-like entity that follows strange and untransparent rules, and which seems to sometimes work and sometimes not. It is a bit like the weather, extremely hard to predict and subject to endless speculations and opinions, resulting in actions that feel random to us. Unfortunately many people speak about the immune system with confidence but without actually understanding it, it can be hard to know which information to trust and why. But what even 'is' the immune system and how does it actually work?

Understanding the mechanisms that are keeping you alive as you read this is not just a nice exercise in intellectual curiosity; it is desperately needed knowledge. If you know how the immune system works, you can understand and appreciate vaccines and how they can save your life or the lives of your children, and approach disease and sickness with a very different mindset and far less fear. You become less susceptible to snake oil salesmen who offer wonder drugs that are entirely devoid of logic. You get a better grasp on the kinds of medication that might actually help you when you are sick. You get to know what you can do to boost your immune system. You can protect your kids from dangerous microbes while also not being too stressed-out if they get dirty playing outside. And in the very unlikely case of, say, a global pandemic, knowing what a virus does to you and how your body fights it, might help you understand what the public health experts say.

Besides all these practical and useful things, the immune system is also simply beautiful, a wonder of nature like no other. The immune system is not a mere tool to make your cough go away. It is inextricably tied into almost all other processes in your body—and while it is centrally important to keeping you alive, it is likely that it may also be the part of your body that causes your untimely death, either by failing or by being too active.

I have been fascinated and obsessed by the incredible complexity of the human immune system for the better part of a decade now. It began in university where I was studying information design and was looking for a semester project and the immune system seemed like a good idea. So I got a large pile of books about immunology and began digging in, but no matter how much I read, things just did not get less complicated. The more I learned the more impossible it seemed to simplify the immune system as every layer revealed more mechanisms, more exceptions, more complexity.

And so a project that was supposed to last the spring took over the summer and then the fall and the winter. The interactions of the parts of the immune system were too elegant and the dance they danced was too beautiful to stop learning about them. This progress fundamentally changed how I experienced and felt about my body.

When I got the flu I could no longer just complain, but had to look at my body, touch my swollen lymph nodes, and visualize what my immune cells were doing right then, which part of the network was activated, and how T Cells killed millions of intruders to protect me. When I cut myself while being careless in the forest I felt gratitude for my Macrophages, large immune cells hunting scared bacteria and ripping them into pieces to protect the open wound from infection. After taking a bite of the wrong granola bar and suffering an allergic shock, while being rushed to the hospital, I thought about Mast Cells and IgE Antibodies and how they had almost killed me in a misguided attempt to protect me from scary foodstuffs!
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