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Learn the key ideas of the book by Matt Richtel

An Elegant Defense

Taking a closer look at our body’s defence system

In his book The best defense. The new science of the immune system. A story in four lives, Matt Richtel takes us on a tour through the workings of the immune system, via the historical pioneers who helped develop the immunotherapies that are still used today. He also uses the stories of some people he knew to illustrate its sophisticated mechanisms. In this fascinating and enlightening book, the author shows us how the defence mechanisms of our body are dependent on constant subtle balances: if they are too aggressive, they could risk killing us; if they are not incisive enough, they could end up leaving us at the mercy of those silent but lethal threats: the billions of pathogens scattered all over the world.

An Elegant Defense
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Some viruses and bacteria are lethal, while others are useful (and often indispensable) to the functioning of our lives

The number of cells that make up our body are hundreds and hundreds of billions, to which we can add a few more billion units of viruses and bacteria. This immense apparatus is kept under control by a formidable and elegant self-defence organ: the immune system. It repairs the tissues, eliminates toxins, but above all it fights the dangerous intruders known as pathogenic microorganisms. These are basically disease-causing agents, and are mainly divided into three groups: parasites, viruses, and bacteria. In their deadliest form, we can imagine them as little killers. Little because they are in fact microscopic: a single human cell can contain up to a few thousand bacteria and, in terms of proportion, we could actually insert a few thousand viruses into a single bacterium. Truly amazing numbers.

However, there is also an important fact that must be clarified: not all viruses and bacteria are pathogenic and enemies of our body, indeed, if anything, the opposite is true: only about one percent of bacteria cause disease, and some viruses are actually essential for our survival. Think of the bacterial flora in our stomach which facilitate the digestive process.

Obviously, without an immune system we would not be able to fight disease, our bodies would not even be able to recover from the smallest accident, so it goes without saying that we would not be able to exist. So how does the body actually fight unwanted invaders? How does the incredible and fascinating machine that is the immune system work? How have we managed to survive for so many centuries, skirting all the dangers that the world has put us in? The simplest, clearest, and most interesting way to answer this question is to take a look at one particular aspect in the development of the immune system, and more specifically, at how we have gradually come to learn about it and discover how it works.


The key ideas of "An Elegant Defense"

Some viruses and bacteria are lethal, while others are useful (and often indispensable) to the functioning of our lives
The immune system rests on a subtle balance that is halfway between an aggression which could potentially kill us, and a lack of offensive, which would otherwise make us vulnerable to attack by pathogens
The first discoveries about the immune system did contain some truth, but they were also flawed. Yet, these finds were also an essential step towards learning the truth.
There are two types of lymphocytes. T lymphocytes combat pathogens, but they mostly serve to coordinate the body’s defences. B lymphocytes are carriers of antibodies, and they play a key role in our protection
B lymphocytes possess trillions of different antibodies
There are two types of immune system: the innate and the adaptive. The innate immune system is capable of determining whether antigens are harmful or beneficial
Cells communicate with one another through the production of cytokine, protein molecules that let the cells know whether or not to attack viruses and bacteria
Jason Greenstein was saved from cancer mainly thanks to a series of operations that transplanted his immune system, but later ended being attacked and killed by it
Take-home message

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