Recent years have seen dramatic strides being taken in the science of immunology – the capacity to direct the body’s natural defences against specific illnesses and conditions.
So dramatic have the strides been that scientists’ thoughts have increasingly been turning from the short-term suppression of symptoms to treatments that act over a much longer term or even possibly to cures. Central to the developments have been a deeper understanding of the way the immune system works with clinicians, researchers and drug companies increasingly able to bring relief to sufferers of conditions ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to cancer. Immunology is a branch of biomedical science that covers the study of all aspects of the immune system and today’s practitoners are building on thousands of years of scientific development. Indeed, the idea of immunity dates back at least to Greece in the 5th century BC when Thucydides observed people who recovered from the plague in Athens and became immune to re-infection. The earliest recognised attempt to use that knowledge took place in 10th Century China, where healthy people were exposed to lesions caused by smallpox to develop immunity. Succeeding centuries saw more advances including in Britain when, in the 18th Century, the surgeon Charles Maitland exposed six condemned prisoners to smallpox. When they survived, the practice spread rapidly throughout England in the 1740s then to the American colonies.
Other key figures were Edward Jenner, for development of cowpox as a safe vaccine for smallpox, Robert Koch, a 19th Century country physician who developed techniques necessary for the cultivation of bacteria, and Louis Pasteur, another pioneer in the field of vaccines. The past century, and in particular the past two decades, has seen scientists use all that accrued knowledge to they gain a better understanding of the primary lymphoid organs of the immune system the thymus and bone marrow, and secondary lymphatic tissues such as spleen, tonsils, lymph vessels, lymph nodes, adenoids, and skin and liver. Many components of the immune system are cellular in nature and not associated with any specific organ but rather embedded or circulating in various tissues located throughout the body and research has cast more light on how that process works. Dr Alan Worsley, Senior Science Communications Officer at Cancer Research UK, said: “We have become more fully aware of the potential of using the immune system over the past hundred years and the rate of development has really accelerated over the past fifteen to twenty years.
“Previously, we saw the immune system as an on-off switch but now we see it more as a fusebox with start, stop, slow, accelerate switches and we are beginning to understand the complexities of the immune system, the checks and balances. We’ve made a lot of headway and, although we are starting to understand much more, there is still a great deal left to do.
“The immune system is designed to attack anything in the body that should not be there, such as the flu virus. But it is much more challenging when the immune system has to deal with a threat that it recognises as a normal part of the body.
“Take the rogue cells that cause cancer as an example. We have to find ways to help the immune system recognise them as something that should be eradicated or inhibited even though they are a natural part of the body and drugs are coming on the market that can do that.
“In terms of where we are with progress, I would liken it to the history of electronic devices where we started with the lightbulb and have reached the smartphone. In the field of immunology I would say that we have reached the colour television.
“However, the process is accelerating and I see it doing so at a rapid rate in the years to come.”
A similar picture is painted by Professor Michael Ehrenstein, a British Society for Immunology spokesperson and Professor of Rheumatology at University College London, who said: “We are certainly seeing rapid development in the science, driven in part by the successes we are having as we learn to target treatments.
“Our understanding of the immune system is developing all the time as we see which treatments work. There is improved communication between researchers and clinicians so that good feedback is provided. It is very much a two-way street.
“What is also helping is that the drugs companies are seeing the potential and investing in bringing forward new treatments, which means that clinicians have more options.”