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Nobel laureate sheds light on immune response system

Oct. 9, 2014, 10:16 AM

Peter Doherty, Ph.D., right, shares a laugh with Vanderbilt’s Terence Dermody, M.D., at Doherty’s recent Flexner Discovery Lecture. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Peter Doherty, Ph.D., had some advice for young scientists at last week’s Flexner Discovery Lecture. The way to win a Nobel Prize, he said, “is to make a very big discovery first.”

In a lecture that was part scientific presentation and part comedy routine, Doherty recounted his own big discovery of how the immune system recognizes and responds to virus-infected cells. Doherty and Rolf Zinkernagel, M.D., Ph.D., shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their contributions.

“We’re constantly challenged by new infections coming out of nature, apart from the infections that are well established in human populations,” he said. “We have to be able to defend ourselves against these pathogens.”

Doherty has focused on the cytotoxic or “killer” T cells, which he described as the “hit men” of the immune system.

Killer T cells eliminate abnormal cells — including cells infected with virus or cells that are abnormal because of a cancerous change.

“Virus-infected cells are factories that produce new virus particles, so we have to kill them off, and that’s the job of the killer T cell,” he said.

Doherty described the workings of killer T cells and the generation of memory T cells after infection or vaccination. He discussed targeting the T cell response for vaccine strategies and how memory T cells might offer cross-reactive protection against various strains of influenza.

Despite our advances in vaccine development, however, Doherty expressed concern that “we’re up against a public communications disaster” related to vaccines.

“We’re getting measles all around the planet because people are not vaccinating. We’re not doing a very good job of getting the (positive vaccine) message across.”

In his own efforts to communicate more broadly, Doherty has written four books targeted at general audiences, including “Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know” and “Their Fate Is Our Fate: How Birds Foretell Threats to Our Health and Our World.”

Doherty is the Laureate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne. He spends part of his year at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where he holds the Michael F. Tamer Chair in the Department of Immunology.

Doherty’s lecture was the Allan D. Bass Lectureship, sponsored by the Department of Pharmacology. For a complete schedule of the Flexner Discovery Lecture series and archived video of previous lectures, go to www.mc.vanderbilt.edu/discoveryseries.

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