Biff! Bang! Pow! The revenge of the 'killer' Ts

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By Roger Snodgrass

Partially hidden behind a writhing puff of dust that looked very much like a cartoon version of a fistfight, the killer T-cell did its job as the hit man of the immune system, knocking off an invading virus.

Phew! The “killer” T – more formally known as the CD8+, a “killer” T lymphocyte – bumped off the little squirt before it could infiltrate a cell and pump out a million copies of itself.

It may have looked like a kill in a video game, but the short movie in Peter Doherty’s presentation, accompanied by his gangland slang, was about an ordinary, sometimes fatal and always vital micro-war that is going on even now inside our bodies.

An Australian, Doherty and his Swiss research partner Rolf Zinkernagel made some important discoveries at the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra and developed an intellectual framework that changed the way science understood the body’s cellular immune defense.

Some 20 years later, the two men shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

On Thursday, Doherty spoke at a Director’s Colloquium on the campus of Los Alamos National Laboratory on the subject that he helped launch.

Since then and at an accelerating pace, it has become an explosive field, at the center of medical campaigns against HIV/AIDS, bird flu and many other diseases.

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