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What happens when the immune system goes wrong?

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Immunology is the study of the immune system, which is the network of complex cells and processes that protect our bodies from infection.

Immunology is fundamental across medicine and biology, and there is increasing evidence that the immune system is involved in more than just fighting infections.

The immune system is vitally important for defending the body against infection, but it is equally important to understand what is happening when the immune system isn’t functioning like it should. That is why it is so important to fund research in auto-immune diseases; which disproportionately affect women and can have devastating impact on health and people’s quality of life.
Dr Alison Simmons
Head of Research at the Medical Research Foundation

When the immune system goes wrong, it is referred to as an immune system disorder, of which there are four broad categories:

Primary immune deficiency - when someone is born with a weak immune system.

Acquired immune deficiency – when a disease weakens the immune system (e.g. HIV).

Overactive immune system – when the immune system is too active (e.g. an allergic reaction).

Autoimmune disease – when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis).

It is estimated that approximately four million people live with autoimmune conditions in the UK, which range from relatively common conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and type-1 diabetes, to less well-known conditions like lupus, psoriasis and vasculitis.

Autoimmune conditions can be unpredictable and present differently in each individual, making them difficult to manage. Despite decades of research, there is still a huge unmet need for new diagnostics, treatments and cures for these types of condition.

What are we funding?

Unlike many other charities and funding bodies, we are not restricted to providing support for a particular disease or condition, or a particular research institution. We can respond to the emerging health needs of the nation and the wider world, and the research priorities and opportunities identified by scientific experts and our donors.

We provide support for research on the conditions and diseases that devastate lives where there is unmet need for new research but a low research investment, including immune system disorders such as autoimmune hepatitis, asthma, lupus and antiphospholipid syndrome.

Our projects

Below are three example projects that we are funding in the area of immunology. To read more about all of our projects relating to immune-system disorders, click here.


Autoimmune hepatitis

Autoimmune hepatitis is a rare cause of long-term hepatitis in which the body’s immune system attacks and damages the liver. There are thought to be around 10,000 people living with autoimmune hepatitis in the UK.

Dr Palak Trivedi from the University of Birmingham is investigating whether immunotherapy could hold promise for controlling liver damage in patients with autoimmune hepatitis. Read more about the project here.


Lupus is an autoimmune condition where the immune system attacks healthy cells, resulting in inflammation, swelling, and damage to the joints and organs. For unknown reasons, patients that develop lupus during puberty are subject to more severe disease symptoms than those developing lupus later in life. In addition, women are nine times more likely to be affected by the disease than men.

Dr Elizabeth Rosser from University College London aims to compare how sex hormones affect the immune system by looking at a specific metabolic pathway that is influenced by these hormones: cholesterol metabolism. Read more about the project here.

Antiphospholipid Syndrome

Antiphospholipid Syndrome is an autoimmune disorder that affects approximately 0.3-1% of the population. It is closely associated with lupus and these two autoimmune conditions often occur in the same person.

Dr Thomas McDonnell from University College London focuses on a particular molecule that is targeted by the immune system associated with APS: Beta-2-Glycoprotein I (β2GPI). Read more about the project here.