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Two Nobel laureates at immunity symposium

January 12, 2012

The University of California, Davis, will host two Nobel laureates for a symposium this month about the shared characteristics of plants, flies and people in terms of how they fight infections.

“Evolution of Common Molecular Pathways Underlying Innate Immunity” will feature four speakers: the laureates, Jules Hoffmann of the University of Strasbourg, France, and Bruce Beutler of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas; Pamela Ronald, UC Davis professor of plant pathology; and Luke O’Neill, professor of biochemistry and immunology at Trinity College, Dublin.

The symposium is scheduled from 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 25, in the UC Davis Conference Center. Admission is free, with preregistration required via an online system at http://conferences.ucdavis.edu/immunity.

Hoffmann, Beutler and Ralph Steinmann of Rockefeller University, New York City, shared the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their groundbreaking discoveries on how the immune system is triggered to fight invaders. Steinmann died shortly before the prize was announced.

“Their work has opened up new avenues for the development of prevention and therapy against infections, cancer and inflammatory diseases,” the Nobel committee announced.

The human immune system has two lines of defense. The innate immune system reacts first, attacking invading microbes and triggering inflammation. If that response fails, the adaptive immune system fights back with antibodies and specialized killer cells. Afterward, the adaptive immune system retains a memory that allows a more rapid and powerful response if the same virus, bacterium or parasite comes back.

Only animals with backbones, from fish to humans, have an adaptive immune system. But all animals, including insects, as well as plants, have innate immune systems.

In the 1990s, Ronald (working with rice), Hoffmann (with Drosophila flies) and Beutler (with mice) identified genes for immune receptors that triggered innate immunity in the rice, flies and mice, and found that the genes were remarkably similar despite hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

From this common trigger, plants, insects and animals develop different types of response to invaders. At the UC Davis symposium, Hoffman, Beutler and Ronald will talk about new discoveries, and the parallels between flies, mice and plants, while O’Neill will discuss how these “Toll-like receptors” function in people and how the Toll-like receptors and other signaling molecules are linked to inflammation, a key step in innate immunity.

Activation of the immune system is not always a good thing. It can lead to allergy, inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, or autoimmunity, when the body starts attacking its own tissues. The discovery of Toll-like receptors and related mechanisms makes it possible to think about treatments to control these diseases, as well as making new and improved vaccines and engineering disease-resistant crops.

The Murray B. Gardner Research Seminar Fund and the UC Davis Center for Comparative Medicine are sponsoring the symposium.

For more information, contact Anita Moore, Center for Comparative Medicine, (530) 752-1245 or afmoore@ucdavis.edu.

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