Working with our body’s defense system

When foreign microbes invade our bodies, our immune system—complex networks of cells, tissues, and organs—spring into action to protect us. But the immune system has been historically tricky to understand: sometimes it attacks itself, such as in the case of autoimmune disease, and in other cases, it can be harnessed as a treatment option to fight certain diseases, such as cancer. This year at TEDMED, Speakers and Innovators will share how they’re each working to create a better understanding of our immune system and how this internal defense system keeps us healthy.

At his lab at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, systems immunologist Shai Shen-Orr is committed to understanding the complex immune system from a more integrative—or systems—level. To do this, the lab is pulling together data mined from scientific publications using a software they developed called immuneXpresso, which helps to connect the dots between the interactions of various cell types and regulatory molecules. This information is then combined with genomic-level data in an effort to create a fuller picture of our immune systems, and to enable a better understanding of how its individual parts work together to orchestrate immune responses.

Additionally, Shai is working to identify biomarkers for health and proper immune function. Biomarkers represent an increasingly exciting area of research, not only because they help to advance our understanding of the inner workings of the immune system, but also because changes in biomarkers can indicate responses to a variety of factors such as pathogens, environmental changes, and disease. When we know how and why the different components of our immune system respond to certain triggers, we can translate that knowledge to advance medicine through the development of new and improved treatments and cures. Importantly, we can also harness these insights to help us understand more complex systems in our body more generally.

There is still much to be discovered in terms of how the immune system operates in response to various pathogens and diseases. The immune system becomes even more complex and difficult to understand when it functions abnormally in patients with autoimmune disease, in which it mistakes normal cells as foreign and attempts to protect the body from itself. Dr. Betty Diamond has devoted her career to understanding autoimmune diseases and the various systemic defects that are often present in autoimmune patients as a result. Specifically, her work focuses on the mechanisms of DNA-reactive B cells in patients with lupus, as well as the role of antibodies that breach the blood brain barrier in patients with and without autoimmune disease. Currently, she and her team are researching if these antibodies breaching the blood brain barrier are responsible for some instances of autism and PTSD. With her research, Betty aims to unlock new methods of preventing and treating autoimmune diseases.

For the millions of people worldwide who suffer when their own immune system turns against them, today’s treatment options are limited and inefficient. For instance, many existing treatments such as systemic steroids and immunosuppressants act broadly throughout the body. As a result, the body is forced to absorb the consequences of unnecessary systemic exposure, which may leave the patient with unwanted side effects. Alivio is pioneering a new approach for treating autoimmune and inflammatory diseases based on the concept of targeted immunoregulation. With co-founder Dr. Aleks Radovic-Moreno, the company’s novel hydrogel technology is offering an alternative treatment for autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. By entrapping immunoregulatory drugs and adhering them to inflamed tissues, Alivio’s hydrogel delivers drugs locally based on the level of inflammation. It’s not a one-size-fits all, systems-wide dose—if there’s a flare of increased inflammation present at a particular location, then the patient receives more drugs to that spot.

With autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, protecting the body from its own strong defense system is a complex and difficult challenge. However, the power of the immune system can also be harnessed for good. Oncologist Lennie Sender is exploring the potential of immunotherapy and immunology to treat different types of cancer. At TEDMED, Lennie will share his insights into immunotherapy’s potential to be the latest “breakthrough” in cancer treatment since chemotherapy. Since its advent, there have been numerous conflicting reports about whether immunotherapy (or immuno-oncology) will be a “silver bullet” for different types of cancer, or if such expectations are based on hype or limited evidence. Many of the misconceptions about immunotherapy’s potential are due to our limited understanding of the immune system and how it protects us from disease, and Lennie will shed light on these complicated topics during his Talk.

Comprehending the complexities of the immune system is an ongoing challenge, and these Speakers and Innovators are advancing our understanding of this intricate system each day. From working to understand the immune system and autoimmune diseases from a more holistic perspective, to harnessing the power of the immune system to fight inflammatory diseases and cancer, TEDMED 2017 will feature pioneers who are pushing the limits on what we know and what we can achieve.