Antigen (World of Forensic Science)
Antigens, which are usually proteins or polysaccharides, stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. The antibodies inactivate the antigen and help to remove it from the body.
This ability of antigens to stimulate antibody production is very useful in forensic analyses. Detection of an antibody to a target molecule (botulinum toxin, for example) provides powerful evidence that a victim or suspect had been exposed to the particular antigen. In the case of a death, this evidence can help determine the course of events.
By definition, anything that makes the immune system respond to produce antibodies is an antigen. Antigens are living foreign bodies such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi that cause disease and infection. Or they can be dust, chemicals, pollen grains, or food proteins that cause allergic reactions.
Antigens that cause allergic reactions are called allergens. A large percentage of any population, in varying degrees, is allergic to animals, fabrics, drugs, foods, and products for the home and industry. Not all antigens are foreign bodies. They may be produced in the body itself. For example, cancer cells are antigens that the body produces. In an attempt to differentiate its "self" from foreign substances, the immune system will reject an organ transplant that is trying to maintain the body or a blood transfusion that is not of the same blood type as itself.
There are some substances such as nylon, plastic, or Teflon that rarely display antigenic properties. For that reason, nonantigenic substances are used for artificial blood vessels, component parts in heart pacemakers, and needles for hypodermic syringes. These substances seldom trigger an immune system response, but there are other substances that are highly antigenic and will almost certainly cause an immune system reaction. Practically everyone reacts to certain chemicals, for example, the resin from the poison ivy plant, the venoms from insect and reptile bites, solvents, formalin, and asbestos. Viral and bacterial infections also generally trigger an antibody response from the immune system. For most people penicillin is not antigenic, but for some there can be an immunological response that ranges from severe skin rashes to death.
Another type of antigen is found in the tissue cells of organ transplants. If, for example, a kidney is transplanted, the surface cells of the kidney contain antigens that the new host body will begin to reject. These are called human leukocyte antigens (HLA), and there are four major types of HLA subdivided into further groups. In order to avoid organ rejection, tissue samples are taken to see how well the new organ tissues match for HLA compatibility with the recipient's body. Drugs will also be used to suppress and control the production of helper/suppressor T-cells and the amount of antibodies.
Red blood cells with the ABO antigens pose a problem when the need for blood transfusions arises. Before a transfusion, the blood is tested for type so that a compatible type is used. Type A blood has one kind of antigen and type B another. A person with type AB blood has both the A and B antigen. Type O blood has no antigens. A person with type A blood would require either type A or O for a successful transfusion. Type B and AB would be rejected. Type B blood would be compatible with a B donor or an O donor. Since O has no antigens, it is considered to be the universal donor. Type AB is the universal recipient because its antibodies can accept A, B, AB, or O.
SEE ALSO Analytical instrumentation; Antibody; Anthrax, investigation of 2001 murders; Biosensor technologies; Immune system.