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.

Doherty has gone on to prestigious positions on three continents, lately dividing his time between St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

“St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes and immunologists,” he said.

A few years ago, Doherty wrote a kind of autobiography, “The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize.” In the book, he recalled that he had inoculated himself against disappointment about such honors with a conviction that “boys from the Australian backblocks don’t win Nobel Prizes.”

Doherty grew up in what he called a “struggle town” outside Brisbane in Queensland, Australia, with few advantages that might have accounted for his future eminence.

“What changed my life,” he wrote, “was going to an ‘open day’ at the University of Queensland School of Veterinary Science.” His interest, piqued by “the U of Q,” he graduated from veterinary school, where he began to delve into infectious diseases on his way to a Ph.D. in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Introducing him in the Physics Auditorium at LANL, Laboratory Fellow Bette Korber noted that he was the only veterinarian to win the Nobel Prize.

“I’ve been more intimate with cows than any other Nobel Prize winner,” he joked during his talk.

He brought his experimental work up to date, with data on memory cells that create a natural defense after mobilizing against a disease.

“It is not designed,” he said of the body’s auto-immune system. “It is evolved.”

He traced this adaptive immunity back 350-400 million years to boney fishes and lampreys.

He said immunology, like neuroscience or climate science was one of the great complex systems.

He wrote in his Nobel Prize autobiography that his grandfather died of pneumonia during the 1919 influenza epidemic and recalled an uncle who suffered from malaria he caught during World War II while fighting in New Guinea.

“I share Alfred Nobel’s conviction that war is the greatest of all human disasters,” Doherty wrote. “Infectious disease runs a good second.”

His characteristics as a scientists came from “a non-conformist upbringing, a sense of being something of an outsider, and looking for different perceptions in everything from novels to art to experimental results. I like complexity and am delighted by the unexpected,” he concluded in the Nobel essay.

He has a new book that has not been published in this country, “A Light History of Hot Air,” with his thoughts on global warming.