The study of Immunology deals with immune system function. This includes:
- T cells
- B cells
- Dendritic cells
- Natural killer cells
Immunology is a relatively new science. Its origin is usually attributed to Edward Jenner, who discovered in 1796 that cowpox, or vaccinia, induced protection against human smallpox, an often fatal disease. Jenner called his procedure vaccination, and this term is stilled used to describe the inoculation of healthy individuals with weakened or attenuated strains of disease-causing agents to provide protection from disease. Although Jenner’s experiment was successful, it took almost two centuries for smallpox vaccination to become universal, an advance that enabled the World Health Organization to announce in 1979 that smallpox had been eradicated, arguably the greatest triumph of modern medicine.
When Jenner introduced vaccination he knew nothing of the infectious agents that cause disease: it was not until late in the 19th century that Robert Kock proved that infectious diseases are caused by microorganisms, each one responsible for a particular disease, or pathology. We now recognize four broad categories of disease-causing microorganisms, or pathogens: these are viruses; bacteria; pathogenic fungi; and other relatively large and complex eukaryotic organisms collectively termed parasites.
The discoveries of Koch and other great 19th century microbiologists stimulated the extension of Jenner's strategy of vaccination to other diseases. In the 1880's, Louis Pasteur devised a vaccine against cholera in chickens, and developed a rabies vaccine that proved a success upon its first trial use in a boy bitten by a rabid dog. These practical triumphs led to a search for the mechanism of protection and to the development of the science of immunology. In 1890, Emil von Behring and Shibasaburo Kitasato discovered that the serum of vaccinated individuals contained substances, which they called antibodies, that specifically bound to the relevant pathogen.