Your work focuses on innate immunity – the body’s front line defenses against pathogens. For a long time, the focus in immunology was on the adaptive side of the immune system and we’ve learned much of what we know about innate immunity only in the past 10 years. Why do you think that is?
Actually, I tell people that when I was in graduate school, the people who studied innate immunity were all near retirement. There were some major changes that made innate immunity interesting: there was a lot of work done with type 1 interferons, which are a family of cytokines that are part of innate immune responses, particularly to viral infection. There was the discovery of natural killer cells, and a new appreciation for a wider range of antigen processing cells that help bridge between innate and adaptive responses. So it became very cool and important – the top dog.
Do you think innate immunity is underappreciated in medicine?
I don’t think that’s true anymore. I think people are spending a lot of time focusing on how you might be able to harness or control the innate immune system to facilitate vaccination or induction of long-term immunity.
You’re chair of the Molecular Microbiology and Immunology department at Brown, and though microbiologists and immunologists share some interests, the particulars of these fields – the systems they work with, the jargon – can be very different. How do you bring those two groups together in your department? I believe it’s very important to keep the two groups together so you can think about host-pathogen interactions. Immunologists, separated from people who think about infection, might think about the immune system as a developmental question; and the microbiologists, separate from the immunologists, will really focus on the organisms and maybe molecular pathways that are unique to particular organisms. When you put the two together, that’s when you see how the whole system works.
The title of one of your recent papers was “Type 1 interferons and the virus-host relationship: A lesson in détente.” Why détente? Doesn’t someone always win in a battle between a virus and a host?
I think the best outcome for both is a relationship where people can survive the infection and the organism lives long enough to get by into the next host, replicate enough to spread, and survive. It’s not really advantageous to the microorganism to kill its host too quickly, because then the time it has for replication is limited and the opportunity to spread to another individual is limited.
Where do you see your field in 10 years?
I’m a little worried that one of the things that’s going on in science now is information overload. We’re going to know a lot more 10 years from now, and the challenge will be grouping that information so we understand in which context it’s important and how to control it.
If you had to change careers today and you could do anything, what would you do?
I was interested in science very young – I think I got a microscope when I was six or seven, so I was committed very early on. It’s hard for me to imagine not doing science.
What’s your favorite science book?
There has been this wonderful text book now for a number of years on immunobiology that was headed up by Charley Janeway (“Immunobiology”), who was one of the movers in bringing people’s attention to the innate immune system. It’s really a great book because it puts the players and the responses in a biological context. Something that’s just fun to read is a book by Stephen Hall called “A Commotion in the Blood,” which talks about the evolution of cytokines and their therapeutic use.
What is something about you that most people don’t know?
I sing. When I was a kid, my parents put me in singing lessons. It’s very personal, and if things seem a little crazy I get a lot of peace from it. I sing and I laugh – those are the things that are non-science that I really enjoy.