Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Monday, June 06, 2005

Horror Autotoxicus: Boosting the immune system

Dr. Hoy does an excellent job of answering the following query:

> Please consider this unadorned, unexplained statement:
> "Product X boosts your immune system." Does this statement,
> in and of itself, have any medical or physiological meaning?
> If so, what does it mean? Can immune systems undergo or
> display "boosting"? If so, what does "boosting" mean here?
> I'll be grateful for all opinions about this.
> B*** B*******

Mr. B*******,

As a Clinical Immunologist, I encounter this claim frequently. As Dr. Hall said, it is meaningless. Whenever I encounter this I try to challenge the person who is making the claim. The questions I ask are:

1) What part of the immune system is being "boosted"? The humoral immune system, the cellular immune system, the innate immune system, the adaptive immune system?

2) What is the mechanism of this "boost"?

3) Is the "boost" a general increase in immune activity, or are certain targets of the immune response "boosted" more than others?

4) How is the "boost" regulated?

5) What keeps the "boost" from activating parts of the immune system that are harmful to the host (autoimmunity or hypersensitivity)?

I have challenged perhaps 50 websites and individuals who make this claim. So far, not one has been able to respond to any of the 5 questions. The usual response that I get is, "I'm not a scientist, so I don't know how it works, I just know that it cured my [fill in the blank]!" And then other testimonials follow.

From my introductory lecture in Basic Immunology:

The human immune system is a complex series of interactions.

We have interactions at the organism level (human vs. microbe).

We have interactions at the cellular level - T cells, B cells, phagocytes, Antigen Presenting Cells, plasma cells, natural killer cells, cytolytic cells, suppressor cells, endothelial cells, and target cells.

We have interactions at the molecular level, involving many cell-surface and soluble molecules. Within the immunologically-active cells a series of molecular reactions trigger production of other immunologically-active proteins.

The whole immune system is maintained by an elegant series of regulatory cells, proteins, and other molecular regulators.

To indiscriminately disrupt ("boost") any part of this network would be disastrous to the host. The concept of "boosting" the immune system is actually part of what occurs in autoimmune diseases, or as Paul Ehrlich called it, "Horror Autotoxicus".

Boosting the immune system would indeed be a Horror.


Eric S. Hoy, Ph.D., SI(ASCP)
Clinical Associate Professor
Department of Medical Laboratory Sciences
The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
Dallas, Texas

(Reprinted here by permission.)