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A future boost for immunity?

19th December 2007

The Economist examines the idea that in the future we may be able to add to our immune systems by boosting them with molecules.

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Louis Pasteur, the renowned 19th-century French microbiologist, discovered by observing ill silkworms that microbes were responsible for disease. His two major discoveries were that the sickness the worms suffered from could be passed from worm to worm. This caused antibiotics to be developed to treat infections in humans.

His second observation was not given nearly as much attention as the first. Pasteur noticed that the worms passed down the illness "from parent to offspring". This idea is only now being considered seriously, with a meeting held in November in Paris hearing: "how the next generation of drugs will target not the microbial agents of infectious illness but their human hosts".

Scientists are currently exploring how some people are more vulnerable to illness, while others do not seem to be affected. Their aim is to pinpoint why some people can remain resistant to diseases even though their bodies are host to "virulent microbes" and how these patterns are passed from generation to generation.

Working at the Necker Medical School in Paris, Laurent Abel and Jean-Laurent Casanova have discovered how a difference in a single gene can crucially influence a person's susceptibility to many illnesses. Dr Casanova has found that not having the molecule type 1 interferon leaves children infected by the Herpes virus vulnerable to a serious condition which causes a brain inflammation, known as H. simplex encephalitis (HSE).

HSE is thought by Dr Casanova to be "be purely monogenic—that is, under the control of a single gene". His colleague Dr Abel is looking into how prevalent the effects of inherited genes are.

The two scientists believe human beings have gaps in their immune systems which means they are more susceptible to certain diseases. It also means illness experienced before puberty will be the result of a single gene. Dr Casanova wants to develop a treatment for HSE which would involve giving patients with HSE the molecule they do not have.

Other scientists think that the "genetic control of susceptibility to infectious disease forms a spectrum". One or several genes may control some diseases, but others may be controlled by many genes.

Pasteur's overlooked observation could, in the future, end up being as well-known and celebrated as the first one he made.

 

 


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