Friday, July 20, 2012

//EDU SPCL: Science Stuff - Cytokine Storm

Our immune system is pretty fucking amazing, I mean imagine how complex yet accurate it is, it can actually distinguish the difference between pathogens and your body's own cells, and fight the pathogens off while making sure it doesn't attack your body. You body encounters millions of pathogens on a daily basis, and it if wasn't for your immune system you'd mostly likely die very very quickly. Think about it this way, your body is at war everyday, every minute even from pathogens, and your immune system is basically the defence system that works constantly to protect your body from external attacks and invaders by sending immune cells to wander off invaders. It's actually pretty cool. Like your immune system is basically a badass killing machine.

As amazing and important our immune system is, it's actually pretty lethal if something goes wrong. Most of the time your immune system can distinguish the difference between your cells and pathogens. However, when you have some sort of Autoimmune disease, for reasons not quiet clear, sometimes the immune system mistakes your body's healthy cells and starts attacking it, causing a mess of things. Or sometimes it can act like a drama queen and overreact to harmless stuff and attack it (Allergies).

A Cytokine Storm is sort of like this. Well, the concept of a cytokine storm is pretty complex, but I find it for some reason pretty intriguing (I was actually planning to write about Absolute Zero, but I came across an experiment that went deadly because of this, so I decided to talk cytokine storms instead.)  Scientists don't really understand much about it, and if you search it on the great internet, there's not much about it. But there is things that we do know and that's what I will try to explain and talk about. 

A cytokine storm is basically an  extreme overreaction from the body's immune system. In normal situations, when the immune system detects a pathogen, a molecule called cytokine activates immune cells, and act as a messenger by signalling the immune cells to go to the site of the infection, and then the body proceeds to fight off the infection/pathogen normally. While this happens, more cytokines are produced so that more immune cells are produced to fight off the pathogen/infection. This loop is almost always kept in check by the body so it doesn't spiral out of control. 

With a Cytokine storm, well, what happens is that this loop basically goes out of control. For reasons unknown, the immune cells are caught in an endless loop with the cytokines to fight off an infection. The cytokines call and activate for more and more immune cells to attack the infection, and this produces more cytokines which call and activate more immune cells and so on. Sooner or later, these immune cells will start flooding the infection site, and while trying to fight off the disease, it starts causing damage to the tissue it's attempting to save. Putting this in a realistic example, let's say you hate Rick Santorum and you wanted to kill him. Instead of just killing him, you instead decide to nuke the entire continent of North America, while you did effectively got rid of him, you also killed everything else on that continent. So a cytokine storm is kind of like this.

A great example of a cytokine storm is one that occurs in the lungs. Well, we do know the basic function of our lungs is to make us breath (inb4youdon'tsay), so let's say some asshole virus decides to infect you (H5N1, or maybe the H1N1) and starts attacking your lungs, your immune system detects it, and cytokines start calling the immune cells to send this fucker back to where it came from. For some reason your immune system overreacts and starts making more and more cytokines to send more and more immune cells to your lungs. Eventually, the immune cells will accumulate in your lungs, and clog your airways and then you'll stop breathing and die. That's sounds like fun, eh?

What's the deal with this thing anyway? Well aside it from being totally fucking serious and can pretty much kill you, it actually goes back to 1918, the Spanish Flu pandemic which resulted in the death of 3% of the world's population at that time (and infected 27%). One of the main reasons why it was very deadly and so age concentrated (the majority of the victim were healthy young adults), is because most of the deaths were results from the virus causing (somehow) a cytokine storm. The people with healthier and stronger immune systems were dying, and the little kids and older people with the shittier immune systems survive. Funny how that works out. 

Aside from the 1918 pandemic, it also seems that the ongoing cases of the H5N1 virus (AKA Birdflu) also cause an elevated rise of cytokine levels, which (duh) contributes to cytokine storms. Another well known case is the result of the experimental drug TGN1412, which caused cytokine storms with the human subjects and basically fucked them up for good. (I'll link this at the end).

So, can we calm down the storm? Well, to the best of my knowledge, there's no cure for it to make it magically go away. There's nothing that treats it directly or anything like that. However, while you are suffering from it, if you can survive it for a couple of days (with the help of medicine to treat the symptoms and life support machines ofcourse) it should start to fade away. It's you and your chances I guess.

So, in a way, having a healthier and stronger immune system can actually result in a much more devastating effect from a cytokine storm. And if you're thinking of buffing up your immune system, you might want to rethink that.

For further reading: