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I am wondering if you were theoretically able to get vaccinations or antibodies for any and every diseases and/or illness, would there be a limit to how many you can get and keep in your body at one time? If so, what is the limiting factor?

What would be the possible effects of this on the body and immune system? Thanks.

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  • $\begingroup$ Everyone has an estimated number of around 10^12 (1 trillion) different antibodies, without counting any immune reaction to vaccines or other antigens (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26860). $\endgroup$ – Mad Scientist May 20 '12 at 7:58
  • $\begingroup$ Textbooks tend to quote different numbers whatever you read, our recommended one (garlandscience.com/product/isbn/9780815341468) comes up to 10^16 for example. But the number itself isn't useful anyway, the point is that it's a lot. $\endgroup$ – Armatus May 20 '12 at 9:00
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Antibodies are simply proteins and like any other protein have a relatively short "life", so after clearing out an infection, they are not retained for long (most of them anyway). What the body keeps is memory cells which can produce a much more rapid response if they come in contact with the same pathogen again.

You could see it as a selective process: the body produces immune cells, one or more specific cells for nearly every potential antigen that might exist in the world (there are more steps involved of course but they are of little relevance here). Only those which are used at some point mature into memory cells.

Unfortunately, I just realised that I can't explain why the immune system goes through this selective process; producing cells equivalent to memory cells in the first place would make the immune response much stronger. One explanation I can think of for why the body produces naive cells first is that either a) their production or b) their maintenance is less costly.

The other explanation I could think of is that even immune cells in the periphery which have undergone the proofing mechanisms of immune cell development already, may not be perfect and target body cells every now and then - in that case it would be devastating if they would go all-out like a memory cell.

From my three explanations, only alternative b) would mean there could be a limitation to how many vaccinations our immune system can bear (if memory cells take more effort to maintain than naive cells, having too many of them may overstrain whatever systems maintain them). Otherwise I don't see any limiting factor for how many memory cells you can retain; except if their numbers become so large that your lymph nodes swell and that causes problems.

Edit note: I'm not aware of any research about that question and couldn't find anything either.

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  • $\begingroup$ I just realised that I can't explain why the immune system goes through this selective process; producing cells equivalent to memory cells in the first place would make the immune response much stronger. It would also mean making an essentially infinite number of cells, since there are an infinite number of potential antigens in the universe. Memory cells are only produced when they see a target, thus proving that their antibody sequence has potential utility. $\endgroup$ – iayork Jun 28 '18 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ @iayork My thought process came more from the fact that our bodies do maintain exactly that large number of naive cells specific for potentially useless antigens, so I don't see much sense in an argument based on maintaining a lower number of cells. If that was the case, it would be even more desirable to have naive cells being fully potent already. This argument to me only makes sense if naive cells die relatively quickly. $\endgroup$ – Armatus Jun 28 '18 at 18:04
  • $\begingroup$ There is an extensive literature on this subject; if you are "not aware of any research about that question and couldn't find anything either", I suggest you delete your answer since it's simply your idle speculation based on mis-informed guesswork. $\endgroup$ – iayork Jun 28 '18 at 18:17
  • $\begingroup$ I wouldn't be surprised if the literature situation has changed in 6 years. It seems at the time, idle speculation based on misinformed guesswork was the best I could offer without spending disproportionate amounts of time on literature search. Particularly if it's so extensive, I suggest you post a better answer and then we can upvote it. $\endgroup$ – Armatus Jun 28 '18 at 20:35
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so I work in a B-cell and Antibody Memory lab and the answer to your question is no. First of all, your body does make a B-cell against every possible target conceivable and if they don't bind to their target, they will die within a few weeks. If they do bind to their target however, they turn into long-lived plasma cells, which are stored in the bone marrow and constantly pump out antibodies, and memory cells which are pretty much the same as B-cells except they're way more powerful in their response and they live forever. So, yeah, don't hold back on the vaccines (but careful of any autistic side effects)

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    $\begingroup$ Memory does have limits; it's been shown that adding new specificities eventually does start to crowd out old specificities. The point at which this happens is unclear and probably has complex determinants, and the vaccine schedule doesn't come close to touching it. Hopefully your "autistic side effects" comment is a joke, but given that a non-scientific audience reads this I hope you'll edit it out. $\endgroup$ – iayork Jun 28 '18 at 14:15

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