Sometimes science is frighteningly wrong: the history of autoimmune disease

Historically, women suffering from multiple sclerosis were told that it was all in their heads. Then researchers discovered that people with chronic inflammatory conditions like MS have certain antibodies in higher levels than in people without such conditions. So MS was no longer a disease of hysteria, but a disease of antibodies.

Usually, antibodies are produced in response to germs. But the researchers couldn’t find any germs that might have triggered the antibodies, so they made a guess: that the body is producing antibodies in response to its own self.

In MS, it is thought that antibodies attack myelin, the fatty substance that wraps nerve fibres. In lupus, antibodies can attack any of the various organs and tissues. In rheumatoid arthritis, it is joints that are attacked. Coeliac, Crohn’s and inflammatory bowel disease are attacks on the gut. Diabetes Type 1 is due to the body attacking the pancreas.

Or so it is thought. But what if the hypothesis that the body was attacking itself was wrong? This hypothesis was made on the belief that the body is largely sterile. But the reality is that our bodies are full of, and covered with, billions of microbes. They’re in every tissue and organ, and cover all of our skin. So it is possible that so-called autoimmune diseases are not anomalous responses to healthy tissue, but normal responses to previously unknown, and undetected, germs.

The antibodies present in people with rheumatoid arthritis are also seen in people with known pathogen infections. Lyme Disease, which looks very similar to ME/CFS, is known to be a response to the lyme germ. Bacteria found in people with autoimmune disease (but not in healthy people) trigger ‘autoimmune’ disease in mice – and can be treated with antibiotics or vaccines.

It is entirely possible that we have been treating autoimmune diseases in the wrong way. We have assumed that the problem is an overactive immune system, and so give people immunosuppressants. But these people may actually have bacterial or viral infections, in which case what is needed is not to suppress the immune system but to support it with appropriate antibiotics or anti-viral medication.

This is vitally important. Most people with auto-immune disease never get better, and instead once one automimmune disease has appeared a person often develops more, and the ones they have get worse over time. Immunosuppressants are not curing people, may not even be helping, and worse – they may be actively making things worse.

The immunosuppressant drug market is huge and growing. It isn’t easy to convince private profit-making machinery to close itself down, refocus and change direction. We desperately need government-funded research into the immune system and disease processes, and the development of new germ-killing drugs. That this is happening alongside a rise in bacterial resistance to antibiotics just makes the situation even more difficult and time-critical.

You can read more about autoimmune disease at microbe minded blog here: http://microbeminded.com/2018/04/16/re-thinking-the-theory-of-autoimmunity-in-the-era-of-the-microbiome/

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