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Scientists once thought of inflammation as the body’s defensive response to insult or injury. But research has shown that the inflammatory response is actually a fundamental biological process—but one that can go badly awry.

This new understanding of inflammation has uncovered its role in a wide array of diseases—including Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer—where an imbalance in the body’s inflammatory response can lead to severe illness.

As a world leader in immunology, Yale is developing a new science of inflammation, transforming how we approach modern diseases and their link to inflammation. Developing this deeper understanding of inflammation will lead to transformative leaps in how we treat today’s most serious health threats and improve the quality of life for millions of people worldwide. Yale is at the forefront of this work.

How Inflammation Affects Your Health

The word “inflammation” might conjure up images of a swollen ankle after some missteps on a long hike. But inflammation has also emerged as a key factor in serious diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, diabetes, and a variety of infectious diseases including HIV/AIDS. So, what, exactly, is inflammation? When scientists and researchers discuss inflammation, they’re referring to the body’s natural way of defending itself against tissue damage, as well as against viruses and bacteria. It’s a defensive response governed primarily by the immune system, which dispatches white blood cells to the affected sites, resulting in redness and swelling or symptoms such as fever. But they’re also talking about how, sometimes, the immediate, or acute, immune response isn’t enough to clear those viruses. At that point, the inflammation becomes chronic, resulting in harm to the body. “In those conditions, such as infection with HIV or hepatitis virus or long COVID, there may be a persistent viral reservoir that’s causing the chronic inflammation,” explains Akiko Iwasaki, PhD, professor of immunobiology at Yale School of Medicine. “And in that case, the inflammation itself becomes the enemy.” In this video, Iwasaki talks more about acute and chronic inflammation, and how they work with homeostasis, which is the process our bodies naturally use to maintain the critical functions that keep us alive, including heart rate, breathing, and glucose and insulin levels. A better understanding of inflammation, Iwasaki explains, can help provide clues for developing therapies for inflammatory diseases.

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