An Immunity Boost: Conversation With Three Nobel Laureates

The world is waiting for a vaccine against COVID-19. Photo/Credit: simon2579/iStock

Never before has immunology been such a hot topic. With the coronavirus pandemic still taking its toll, the Online Science Days 2020 addressed this pressing topic with a session involving three renowned experts on immunology.

Bruce A. Beutler and Jules A. Hoffmann were awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their research on innate immunity, one of the two main immunity strategies found in vertebrates (the other being the adaptive immune system). The innate immune system is the oldest of the two, emerging over 500 million years ago when macroscopic life was still in its early stages.

Innate immunity is the first and sometimes the only defense system against pathogens, says Hoffman, whose fruit fly research overlapped with Beutler’s mammalian studies.

“We were interested in the question of how animals become aware of infection, specifically how mammals do, and we searched for a long time to find sensing mechanisms,” says Beutler.

Developing vaccines

The conversation naturally moved to a pressing and very important topic: vaccines. As much as we all crave for some post-pandemic normality, it’s hard to truly envision this without a working coronavirus vaccine. But it won’t be easy, says Sir Gregory P. Winter.

“The problem is for the human situation, you’ve got to roll this out on a vast scale – not just to a cage of mice and monkeys, which gives you a lot of logistical difficulties,” he notes.

Winter adds that we’re starting to see evidence suggesting that a coronavirus vaccine can generate an immune response, but that doesn’t show whether the response is protective, which creates another layer of complexity for developing vaccines.

Some immune responses may even cause more problems than they solve. For instance, the production of some antibody may end up enhancing the infection, as is the case with the dengue virus. The dengue vaccine is only recommended to people who have had the disease previously, otherwise it may increase the risk of severe disease. This phenomenon has also been observed in some coronaviruses, raising concerns that developing and deploying a coronavirus vaccine won’t be easy.

Is the immune System Successful?

The discussion then drifted towards a subject that many of us don’t ever think about, but perhaps we should: Is our immune system actually successful?

The knee-jerk reaction would probably be to say yes. After all, here we are the dominant species on Earth, and out of countless pathogens, relatively few are problematic. But then again, here we are holding this meeting online instead of Lindau because of a virus, so how successful are we?

The Nobel Laureates too found it hard to agree on this.

“I would start with the point of view that it’s not very successful,” says Beutler. “It has allowed us to survive in an evolutionary sense but not very well. We know from our species that if they live in the wild they don’t live very long, and it’s because of infectious disease.”

Hoffman had a different idea.

“I have the impression that when we travel, we meet so many microbes when we shake hands and so on, and then we come back to our home without having picked up anything. This is probably due to innate immunity, but there must be fantastic protection.”

“Out of the millions of bacteria, only about 100 species are a problem for humans.”

Called as an arbiter to the debate, Sir Gregory P. Winter said it depends how you look at things. In absolute terms, the immune system is pretty successful, “I guess it depends whether you’re glass-half-empty or glass-half-full, depends where you stand on,” he said.

Even discussing a serious topic the Nobel Laureates enjoyed the concersation.

Advice for young researchers

The conversation also shifted to what young researchers can do to enjoy a successful career, both in academia and in the industry. According to Sir Gregory P. Winter, both fields are immensely competitive, and both come with advantages and disadvantages.

“Science is very competitive, so it’s very hard, and often you’re on your own, as a postdoc or PI you have to prove yourself — often with minimal resources. You have to be very determined and work a lot, and you will always feel pressure on delivering. Even when you may be relatively safe, with tenure, you can’t relax, because there’s peer pressure and if you’re not delivering you feel humiliated.”

Meanwhile, life in the industry may be a bit easier. You’re competing against other companies, but within the same company, everyone is on the same side and working together. But on the flip side, you may be forced to work on something you might not like, or you may find that action is slowed down by committees and financial decisions. Things are never easy in this line of work, but Winter suggests considering small biotech companies as an alternative to academia and large companies.

“If you’re happy with a life where you’re making new discoveries but you have a massive pressure, then science is the right profession,” Winter concludes.

About Andrei Mihai

Andrei is a science communicator and a PhD candidate in geophysics. He co-founded ZME Science, where he tries to make science accessible and interesting to everyone and has written over 2.000 pieces on various topics – though he generally prefers writing about physics and the environment. Andrei tries to blend two of the things he loves (science and good stories) to make the world a better place – one article at a time.

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