The Adaptive Immune Response

When the body is exposed to an antigen for the first time, a number of nonspecific (or innate) mechanisms are brought into play to restrict its spread and the accompanying tissue damage. They do not require specific identification of the invader, merely the recognition that something foreign has entered the system. These mechanisms are very efficient and manage to prevent infection by many organisms. However, the latter have been particularly adept in evolving ways to avoid destruction by these non-specific defence systems and as a result, the host has developed more complex immune mechanisms which specifically recognise the invader and invoke reactions to destroy it. This adaptive immunity is characterised by the development of both T and B lymphocyte memory cells, which allow a more rapid and effective response on second exposure to the eliciting antigen.

The development of antigen-specific immunity largely depends on the ability of T cells to recognise antigen. This is a complex process since T cells cannot bind free antigen and must have it presented to them by products of the major histocompatibility gene complex (MHC) on the membranes of cells. T cells can only recognise antigen presented by self-MHC gene products.

In order for an antigen to associate with MHC gene products, it must be processed because only short peptides may associate with the antigen-binding regions of these molecules (see Section 2.2).

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