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Nobels Honor Immune System Research Paving Way for New Vaccines, Treatments

October 3, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
American Bruce Beutler and Luxembourg-born Jules Hoffmann shared this year's Nobel Prize in medicine with Canadian-born Ralph Steinman, who died on Friday, for their discoveries related to the immune system. Jeffrey Brown discusses their work with Dr. Anthony Fauci of The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
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GWEN IFILL: The first of this year’s Nobel Prizes was awarded today.

Jeffrey Brown looks at the advances in treating cancer and other diseases made possible by the work of this year’s winners.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the words of the Nobel Committee, the three laureates have revolutionized our understanding of the immune system by discovering key principles for its activation.

American Bruce Beutler and French scientist Jules Hoffmann won for their discovery of the mechanism that triggers innate immune responses. Canadian Ralph Steinman, who taught for many years at Rockefeller University in New York, shared the prize for discovering the trigger for so-called adaptive immune responses.

Shortly after the prize was announced, news also came that Dr. Steinman had died this past Friday. And while the prize is generally not awarded posthumously, the Nobel Foundation announced that, in this case, its decision would stand.

Joining us now to explain the research of this year’s winners is Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Welcome back, Dr. Fauci.

So, before we get into the details, in general terms, this is about how the body fights disease?

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: Indeed.

What the laureates established and discovered was the precise mechanisms whereby the two components of the immune system are activated. The very primitive, innate immune system, which was what Beutler and Hoffmann discovered, and then the connection between that innate immune system and what we call the adaptive immune system, which is a much more sophisticated part of our immune system, which is what Ralph Steinman was able to delineate by discovering this very specialized cell.

So it is really very worthy discoveries of the Nobel Prize.

JEFFREY BROWN: Start with a little bit more on the innate immunity. This is described as the first line of defense. Now, what does that mean?

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, it’s a very primitive line of defense. It’s what very, very early primitive animals have who have not yet involved into developing what we call an adaptive immune system.

It instantaneously senses invaders, like bacteria or viruses or parasites. It’s rather non-specific, but it’s very instantaneous in its ability to recognize these invaders and to trigger a response that would protect the organism in question, be it an amoeba or a much more developed organism. That’s what we mean by innate, very rapid, very quick, but not very specific.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what did the discovery by Beutler and Hoffmann allow once you know that?

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: They discovered the very molecules that the cells that are the cells of the innate immune system use to recognize these invaders, these bacteria and these viruses.

The word that was used is a Toll-like receptor. In fact, it was from early work that Hoffmann did in the fruit fly, in the Drosophila, where he noticed that they had a gene which, when it was an abnormal gene, they didn’t defend themselves very well against fungi. And then, in the mouse, Beutler showed the same sort of thing to show that these were the molecules that were responsible for triggering this very early response.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the so-called — moving to the so-called adaptive immunity, the work by Dr. Steinman, the intriguing idea here that sort of hit me is that the immune system develops a kind of memory to deal with specific attacks. You said this is more complicated. Explain.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, what it is, is that, for the early response, it’s very non-specific, but the adaptive immune system is much more complicated one. It has memory and what we call specificity.

It will specifically recognize something, and it will remember the next time you get exposed to that. So it gives a much more robust response.

What Ralph Steinman discovered was a particular type of cell called a dendritic cell, which actually bridges the gap between the innate and the adaptive immune system by picking up viruses or bacteria or other antigens, even tumor cells, and presenting those cells, those products to the immune system that specifically recognizes it. So it’s kind of a carrier cell that is able to take whatever it is that you want to respond to and present it in a very specific way to the specific or adaptive immune system.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so, how do these breakthroughs translate into treatments or therapies or vaccines?

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: Well, they’re going to be very, very important, for example, in determining the molecular mechanisms of how you activate the immune system, which would immediately allow you to control it, either by boosting it with what we call adjuvants or suppressing it when it gets out of line.

Particularly the dendritic cells are very interesting, in that the front line of the future type of vaccines are using dendritic cells that you actually pulse with a particular protein that you want the body to make an immune response to. And then you infuse it back into the body, so that it now very, very specifically induces an immune response.

So it has implications for everything from cancer, to vaccinations, to adjuvants, and to protecting us against infections.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you said it’s going to be. No vaccines yet? I mean, where do things stand?

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: No, there’s no product on the shelf, as it were, that is the result of this.

But the science is so elegant in this, that there’s no question that these are going to be breaking through and really providing some very important countermeasures in the future, be they vaccines or therapies against cancer.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I do want to ask you, before we end here, I mentioned that Dr. Steinman had died Friday of pancreatic cancer.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: Correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there was word out from Rockefeller University, where he worked, that he in fact had been treated by a kind of experimental immunotherapy based on his own work. I think we’re still getting information about that.

Do you know much about that or about…

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: Well — well, yes. And, in fact, he did.

You know, he had obviously a very serious cancer. Unfortunately, he died just a couple of days ago. But, as part of his therapy, he employed this technique of using dendritic cells that you could actually pulse with tumor antigens.

JEFFREY BROWN: And?

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: And, well, obviously, it didn’t succeed. He had an advanced form of cancer. He had it for a few years. He did relatively well for the years that he was sick, a very, very brave man.

In fact, we should mention that he was doing elegant science literally to the very end of his life.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Dr. Anthony Fauci on the three Nobel laureates in medicine this year, Thanks so much.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: You’re welcome.