The recent coronavirus pandemic underscored how dangerous viral infections can be when they get out of hand. The communicable respiratory disease took nearly 7 million lives, bringing the globe to a standstill as countries shut their borders to prevent infections. In a recent study, researchers tried to determine whether similar viral infections and autoimmune diseases were connected.
Autoimmune conditions occur when an individual’s immune system mistakes healthy tissue for foreign invaders and begins attacking the body. Although we still don’t know the exact cause of autoimmune diseases, scientists have spent decades studying the underlying mechanisms involved in the development of autoimmune diseases to develop more effective ways of treatment.
Roughly 5–8% of the U.S. population is affected by autoimmune conditions including type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis (MS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Scientists posit that the diseases occur due to a mix of genetic and nongenetic factors such as diet, toxic chemicals and pathogens that increase the risk of autoimmunity. Chronic viral infections seem to be a risk factor in autoimmunity, with the recent COVID-19 pandemic being accompanied by a rise in autoimmune disorder cases in patients diagnosed with the coronavirus.
The primary mechanism behind autoimmunity is an immune system with low tolerance to self-antigens, which are antigens that originate from your own cells. This tolerance loss can arise due to altered central tolerance selection. Central tolerance involves several selection processes in the bone marrow and thymus that eliminate autoreactive B- and T-Cells before they enter the blood. Prior studies have revealed that viral infections of the thymus can cause autoimmunity by interrupting the T-cell life cycle.
Peripheral tolerance is the main defense against reactive B- and T- cells that manage to enter the bloodstream by using several immune cells to limit the intensity, duration and location of immune responses. Poor peripheral tolerance functions can lead to autoimmune conditions such as myasthenia gravis, type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Continued inflammation due to viral infections can also increase one’s risk of autoimmunity.
A protein produced by the SARS-CoV-2 viroporin, hepatitis C and the influenza virus M2 ion channel has been found to activate intracellular components called inflammasomes that lead to inflammatory responses. COVID-19 also causes the overproduction of CD8+ T-cells and mature natural killer cells as well as dysregulation of inflammatory cytokines and B- and T- cells, increasing a patient’s risk of autoimmunity.
This cocktail of changes caused by viral infections such as COVID significantly raises the chances of developing conditions, including polymyalgia rheumatica, mixed connective tissue disease, psoriasis, celiac disease, Sjörgen syndrome and dermatopolymyositis.
Autoimmune conditions are taking an increasing toll on economies and communities, and a number of enterprises, such as Aditxt Inc. (NASDAQ: ADTX), are rising to the challenge by conducting R&D programs aimed at finding ways to reprogram immune systems of individuals with a view to rolling back the malfunctions that trigger autoimmunity.
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