The complement system is the major effector of the humoral branch of the immune system. Research on complement began in the 1890s, when Jules Bordet at the Institut Pasteur in Paris showed that sheep antiserum to the bacterium Vibrio cholerae caused lysis of the bacteria and that heating the antiserum destroyed its bacteriolytic activity. Surprisingly, the ability to lyse the bacteria was restored to the heated serum by adding fresh serum that contained no antibodies directed against the bacterium and was unable to kill the bacterium by itself. Bordet correctly reasoned that bacteriolytic activity requires two different substances: first, the specific antibacterial antibodies, which survive the heating process, and a second, heat-sensitive component responsible for the lytic activity. Bordet devised a simple test for the lytic activity, the easily detected lysis of antibody-coated red blood cells, called hemolysis. Paul Ehrlich in Berlin independently carried out similar experiments and coined the term complement, defining it as "the activity of blood serum that completes the action of antibody." In ensuing years, researchers discovered that the action of complement was the result of interactions of a large and complex group of proteins.
This chapter describes the complement components and their activation pathways, the regulation of the complement system, the effector functions of various complement components, and the consequences of deficiencies in them. A Clinical Focus section describes consequences of a defect in proteins that regulate complement activity.
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