As science writer Matt Ridley reports, Leo James, William McEwan, and other researchers at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge have profoundly advanced the understanding of how antibodies work, opening the door to potential advances in how doctors treat infectious diseases.

James summarizes his lab’s work on his web page:

Despite extracellular adaptive and innate immunity, viral and bacterial pathogens are still able to infect cells. Because of this there must be a way to neutralise pathogens once they are inside the cell. Historically, infected cells have been seen as largely helpless and only able to signal for help. However, there is increasing evidence that cells have their own mechanisms for directly restricting pathogen replication. It is this process of intracellular immunity that my lab is interested in.

In a video, James offers more details on his lab’s findings:

The immune system responds quickly to viral infections. Antibodies circulating in the bloodstream . . . stick to the surface of the invading viruses. We used to think that antibodies only worked outside the cell and that once a virus had broken into the cell it was too late. Recently, scientists at the MRC [Medical Research Council] Laboratory of Molecular Biology discovered that some viruses take antibodies with them when they infect cells. Inside the cell a protein called TRIIM21 . . . recognises the antibodies. TRIM21 destroys the virus by feeding it into the cell’s recycling system. The latest research shows that when TRIM21 detects antibody-bound viruses and bacteria inside a cell it alerts the immune system that the battle has begun.

James notes that his lab’s research “could lead to the design of better vaccines and gene therapies.”

Congratulations to James and his associates for improving the understanding of how the body fights disease—thereby paving the way to more effective treatments of disease. Their work serves as yet another reminder of the fundamental role that reason plays in furthering human life.

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