D.Aniel M Davis is Professor of Immunology at the University of Manchester. He has published more than 130 scholarly articles and two acclaimed popular science books, The compatibility gene other The beautiful cure. Your third, The secret body, describes the next revolution in human health.
As an immunologist, when you listen to conversations about antibodies or T cells in the pub (when regulations allow), are you pleased that these aspects of science have passed into the public domain?
A lot of terrible things have happened because of this pandemic, but the science of viruses and infections has come to the fore. As an immunologist, I always thought my topic was quite important, but by now it has become very clear to everyone how important it is to understand how the immune system works and how viruses evolve, and how infections spread between people. Without that deep understanding, there would have been no progress in creating vaccines and many, many, many more people would have died.
Particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, there were many stories in the media about what you could do to boost your immune system. As an immunologist, does that make you groan a bit?
I understand where it comes from. Even before the pandemic, if I gave a public talk, that was the question I was asked the most. Essentially, we don’t really know the answer because an experiment to isolate a food or supplement to see if it strengthened your immune system is really difficult to do. The only thing most scientists would agree on that affects your immune system’s ability to respond to an infection is stress. And there is a molecular level of understanding why this is so: because when you are stressed, cortisol levels in the blood rise and that calms the immune system because you divert energy into the fight or flight response. So if you have chronic stress, your immune system may be muted in the long run, which could be a problem. My message would be to be very skeptical of anything that claims to boost your immune system.
In degree and doctorateLevel D, you studied physics. What led you to turn towards the ends of the cosmos in our interior?
When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a scientist. And in my youth I felt that physics was the most fundamental science. It was science about rules that work throughout the universe: motion and gravity, electromagnetic waves, so you should study it. But as I got older, I really felt that life was more fundamental and that understanding life is perhaps the most special thing. Also, physics is a very mature science.
Did you feel that you could make a greater contribution to biology?
There are so many questions that they instantly catapult you to the frontier of biology. In biology we are at that point where everything is starting in a big way. Incredible things are going to happen because of the biological advances that are happening now. In the same way that physics in the early 19th century led to the internet, biology is now going to lead to, I don’t know what, it’s just going to be crazy.
Last month a study was published about a baby in San Diego who was admitted to neonatal intensive care with unexplained symptoms. His genome was sequenced, and in 43 hours, a genetic defect was diagnosed, treatment was ordered, and symptoms resolved. How common can this therapy get?
Yes, surely this will become part of medical practice more and more. In fact, I think all sorts of new ways of looking at our health will eventually come online. Not tomorrow, but in the next few years or decades. For example, microbiome compositions could one day be used to aid in the diagnosis of any number of diseases. The tiny bundles of protein and fat molecules called exosomes, which circulate in our blood, as well as circulating cell-free DNA, are less understood at this time, but are also likely to vary in different states of health and disease, and they could be used for diagnosis in the future. How about the analysis of the breath or the sweat of the palms of the hands? This is science fiction at the moment, but it is the direction of travel.
Does the future of personalized medicine depend on context and regulation, that is, is it a patient? in insurance system or how much do you trust the authorities with your genomic data?
I think this is very important. To be honest, it’s not that I know the answers, it’s just that I know we should be talking about it. In all the different aspects of the human body, it is clear that everything is beginning and we will soon be exposed to all kinds of difficult personal decisions. I believe that whatever the legislation is in force or wherever we live, each of us will have to decide for ourselves whether to use the new science that is available and when to use it. Again, not tomorrow, but in the future. For example, would you like to take personal nutritional advice from an algorithm that has analyzed the components of your own stool and blood?
What make you think individuals will act on these ideas? Generally speaking, we all know that it is good for our health to exercise, drink less and eat whole.food, etc., but many people do not bother.
That’s true, but as things get more detailed, it will have an effect. For example, many dieters to try to lose weight, but if it became clear that a personalized diet plan based on the analysis of their microbiome and other aspects of their body is more effective, people would consider that route.
A lot of data about our potential health outcomes is already accessible through something like a 23andMe genetic test. However, some people would rather not know their chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease and everything else. Do you sympathize with that position?
It all comes down to where the knowledge is. With many things, it doesn’t help to know because there isn’t much you can do about it. It’s famous that Angelina Jolie underwent a mastectomy based on the BRCA1 mutation, but she had relatively clear facts from which to make a decision.
Most of the other things are a bit confusing to make clear decisions. But it will come. There will be a flood of information about ourselves as knowledge progresses and people will have to make difficult decisions about their own lives. This is where we are headed, but at the moment it’s a bit confusing.
On the one hand The secret body it is about scientists gaining knowledge and identifying mechanisms, but it is also about scientists inventing new instruments to see what was previously hidden. Is there an instrument of fantasy that can advance your own work?
Due to my background in physics, one of the things that allowed me to make advances in the immune system was to use high-powered microscopes to observe the interaction of immune cells. The super-resolution microscope we have now is a complete dream compared to what we had 20 years ago. The next level would be to see a molecular view of the immune system within the human body. Many of the high-powered microscopes that I use within my laboratory are limited to observing cells interacting with each other on a plate.
Many of the breakthroughs he describes come about through chance encounters between scientists at conferences. Are you concerned that these types of costly events, which involve a lot of air travel, are less likely after a pandemic? Can serendipity happen in Zoom?
I think about it a lot because personally I’m not a big fan of traveling to conferences, because you miss your family, it’s exhausting and bad for the environment. However, it is definitely true that a casual face-to-face interaction is where things turn on. So I hope the technology can improve. Surely some kind of virtual reality headset can put me in a conference situation. Certainly, you can’t make a lot of jokes about zooming.