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4. Markers of Self: Major Histocompatibility Complex

Markers of Self: Major Histocompatibility Complex


Your immune cells recognize major histocompatibility complex proteins(MHC) when they distinguish between self and non-self. An MHC protein serves as a recognizable scaffold that presents pieces (peptides) of a foreign protein (antigenic) to immune cells.

An empty "foreign" MHC scaffold itself can act as an antigen when donor organs or cells are introduced into a patient's body. These MHC self-marker scaffolds are also known as a patient's "tissue type" or as human leukocyte antigens (HLA) when a patient's white blood cells are being characterized.

For example, when the immune system of a patient receiving a kidney transplant detects a non-self "tissue type," the patient's body may rally its own immune cells to attack.

Every cell in your body is covered with these MHC self-marker proteins, and--except for identical twins--individuals carry different sets. MHC marker proteins are as distinct as blood types and come in two categories--MHC Class I: humans bear 6 markers out of 200 possible variations; and MHC Class II: humans display 8 out of about 230 possibilities.