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Distinguishing the adaptive and innate arms of the immune system

2 May 2014

Each year, the World Day of Immunology aims to facilitate communication between scientists and the public to effectively create greater awareness and understanding of immunology as a basis for our individual health and well-being.

Here at the Malaghan Institute, immunology is our expertise. Encompassing a broad branch of the biomedical sciences, immunology deals with our immune system – a network of cells, tissues and organs found throughout the body, which our scientists believe hold the key to treating disease.

Every day our bodies are under attack from a wide variety of foreign and potentially infectious organisms, such as bacteria, viruses and parasites. Components of our immune system travel around our bodies, patrolling for invading organisms and responding when necessary.

Our body has two main types of immune responses - ‘innate’ and ‘adaptive’ that differ in timing and training.

The innate immune system consists of cells and proteins that are present and ready to mobilise and fight microbes at the site of infection. Innate immunity has a number of set strategies for recognising and dealing with infections, without the need to be ‘trained’ to recognise them.

The adaptive immune system, on the other hand, is unable to respond instantly to infections. It needs time to adapt (or learn) to recognise them. Having learned to respond, it is then able to remember particular germs that have infected the body previously so that when, or if, such infections try to infect the body again, the system is able to respond effectively with speed and precision.

Vaccines are an important part of the adaptive response as we trick our bodies into producing a memory to a particular virus or bacteria. This means we have the protection without having to experience the dangers of a real life infection.