Why did I decide to learn immunology? It's a convoluted story. I was preparing a lecture for one of the University of Texas OLLI programs on CRISPR/Cas9, a phenomenon (procedure, technique) that was virtually unknown when I left Rutgers a decade ago. I, of course, knew little about it, but it had become a widely discussed subject and my audience was peppering me with questions. I needed to learn more about it. While trying to get up to speed, I came across a paper on CAR-T cell therapy, an ingenious technique for treating cancer that involves introducing genetically engineered genes into some of the cells of the immune system. For the most part, CRISPR hadn't been used to engineer the genes, but some papers suggested that it might be in the future. It was all noteworthy but didn't spark my interest enough for me to delve into it further.
After completing my six lectures, Gail and I went off on a small boat cruise to some of the less visited islands in the Caribbean. Because of hurricane Irma many of the potential passengers had cancelled, and the ship was half full. Consequently, we got to know the 30 or so stalwarts who took the trip fairly well. One day at dinner, one of the passengers, a radiologist, suddenly began to relate a story about her miraculous escape from death. She had been diagnosed with lymphoma and, after repeated rounds of therapy, had been told that she had only a few months to live. She told us that she had enrolled in a clinical study and undergone an experimental immunological therapy – that turned out to utilize CAR-T cells – and that it had cured her. She regarded the experience as a little short of a miracle. She had been given a second chance and was living life to the fullest, hence the trip to the Caribbean.
When I got back to Austin, spurred on by her story, I started reading more about CAR-T. CAR-T stands for chimeric antigen receptor for T cells. I thought I understood how molecular biologists could put together a chimeric receptor, but what was a T cell? How did it know the difference between a cancer and normal cell? How did it kill cancers? Why was the procedure so dangerous (some of the other participants in the clinical study that my shipmate had been in had died from the treatment)? It was soon clear that I didn't know enough about the immune system to get a clear picture of what was going on.
I wasn't a complete neophyte. I had studied immunology in graduate school, but that was in the middle ages. When I was on the faculty of Johns Hopkins, one of my colleagues was John Cebra, a brilliant immunologist who would, along with his students presented research seminars on a regular basis. I attended many of them, but that too was many years ago, and the field had rapidly advanced and left me in the rear view mirror. The upshot of all this was that I decided it would be fun to learn more about immunology, getting just enough understanding to be able to stand in front of an audience of non-scientists, give a six week series of lectures on the subject, and not make a fool of myself.
How do you learn a new area, one as broad as immunology? In the past when tackling a new area, I would jot down notes as I went along. This time, I thought it would be useful to document my learning path. Hence this blog. It's an experiment. My idea is to track my progress as I try to master this material in real time. I'll try to describe the sources that I use, their strengths and weaknesses, the difficulties that I face, and the analogies that make the most sense to me. All contemporaneously. My hope that this will help others, particularly my students, as they try to grasp the essentials of this important area of biology.