Explainer: how does the immune system learn?

Explainer: how does the immune system learn?

A most unfortunate consequence of being diagnosed with CLL, is that you also get an immediate and accompanying permanent diagnosis of being immune compromised. Unfortunately, the degree of immune compromise worsens over time and with treatment. It is more often infections that become fatal, rather than the CLL, that reduces our life expectancy.

To live well with CLL, you really need to learn more about how illnesses are transmitted so that you know how to protect yourself from your now higher risk of infections that can take you considerably longer to overcome.

As Steven Maltby's article below on how our immune systems learn points out, our very complex immune system is made up of two equally important parts: innate and adaptive immunity. CLL is primarily a disease of the adaptive immune system, because this is provided by our lymphocytes and CLL is a cancer of our B-lymphocytes. As A. D. Hamblin and T. J. Hamblin state in 'The immunodeficiency of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia', "The most obvious and well-known abnormality is hypogammaglobulinaemia, (low antibodies IgG, IgA and IgM to fight infections - Neil) which is present in up to 85% of patients. Serum immunoglobulin levels may be suppressed in other lymphoid malignancies, but in CLL the suppression is far greater."

Unfortunately, CLL also affects our innate immune system, particularly in the more advanced stages. As CLL infiltrates our bone marrow, we are less able to manufacture our other disease fighting white blood cells. The most important of these are our neutrophils (about 60% of all our white blood cells in healthy people) that are the first blood borne defenders against any pathogens trying to infect us. Consequently, we are at higher risk of neutropenia, particularly during treatment. That puts us at more risk of infection even from what we eat, so be prepared to change your diet if you develop neutropenia.

Interestingly, today in 'The Conversation", Steven Maltby, Post-doctoral Fellow in Immunology & Genetics, University of Newcastle, Australia talks about new research that might help us live better with our compromised immune systems - if we don't first find a cure for CLL!. "Rather that being stuck with the immune system we genetically inherit, research is showing that immune responses are shaped by life experiences. It provides hope that we can improve immunity and reduce disease through changes in lifestyle and our environment.":


Other reading:

Your Immune System Is Made, Not Born

(This Scientific American article referenced by Steven Maltby specifically discusses the profound influence of cytomegalovirus (CMV) on the immune systems. Unfortunately CMV is bad news if you have CLL.)


CLL, A cancer of the Immune System


Safe eating for poor immune function - beyond the neutropenic diet


The immunodeficiency of CLL by AD Hamblin and T J Hamblin (2008)



Photo: An egret and a black cormorant taking shelter amongst palm and she-oak (casuarina) tree foliage

10 Replies

  • What a great reference article. I now know what foods to avoid and safer ways to still enjoy them.

    Thanks Neil!


  • Thank you, Neil! Greatly appreciate this information ! TEB

  • "The most obvious and well-known abnormality is hypogammaglobulinaemia, (low antibodies IgG and IgM to fight infections) which is present in up to 85% of patients....."- that's my real problem!!!!

    Thank you. Neil!Appreciate you for sharing this information with us!

  • I have Gammaglobulinenemia and have IVIG treatments monthly, since diagnosed with

    CLL 7 yrs ago. I am still in WW. The infections, bronchitis, pneumonia, sinus infections

    have been very few. It took a long time to keep them under control. What helped was

    the choice to work from home until my Oncologist recommended disability as my

    fatigue was getting worse and I started getting sick more often. I have had multiple

    cancers as I have Lynch Syndrome. More CLL patients should be recommended for


  • Great post very informative : can I ask where dose vitamin d deficiency play a role in disease process.

  • Vitamin D is more properly classed as a hormone, not a vitamin. There are receptors for vitamin D in most of our body cells, implying that it has a much greater role in our overall health than has been appreciated. When it comes to disease processes, researchers need to establish what role there is (if any) on specific diseases arising and the rate of progression.

    Relevant to this community, we know that there's a definite correlation between the blood serum level of vitamin D and the rate of progression of various cancers, including blood cancers, but does low vitamin D increase the chances of cancer becoming established, or does cancer cause the low levels? Mayo Clinic are currently running a clinical trial examining the impact of vitamin D blood serum levels on a range of blood cancers, including CLL. You can be sure to see the results posted when they are reported!!

    I think it is fair to say that we still have a great deal to learn about the full role of vitamin D.


  • Hi cheers i think internet age as worked wonders in terms of research

    I have been looking into my own issues and developments is truly promasing

    As to myself am taking D3 as my body had none and my igm was low


  • Great rrading. Thanks Neil. Peggy

  • Hi Neil,

    Absolutely fascinating article. I was glued to this but with so much important information to absorb I will have to read this one many more times. Important stuff because it goes right to the heart of CLL. The immune system. We have an immune system that has developed over millions of years and yet our immune system has also learned to learn and adapt to protect us and has memory. (Breastfeeding helps the newborn who has yet to aquire these adapted protections). Immunizations can help our immune system learn and it can adapt and use this information beyond the scope of the initial immunization! Some cancer research on blood cancers talks about using the unique protein that attaches to the cell that the immune system uses to fight for us to use to attach cancer fighting drugs. I find great hope in this article. Our immune systems are down but they are not out! Perhaps a healthy lifestyle could give our immune system a boost. Great reading Neil.

  • Neil,

    Thank you so much for this and all the articles you have researched and provided. I have copy/pasted article and links to take time to read all. We who have found this site are fortunate to have it and to have you administrating it.

    I will be catching up, since I just found this place last week.

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