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Understanding the innate and adaptive immune system

On October 3rd, it was announced that three immunologists (two of which are AAAS members), Bruce A. Beutler, Jules A. Hoffmann and Ralph M. Steinman, would share the 2011 Nobel Prize in (Physiology or) Medicine. The award puts these man amongst the likes of Alexander Fleming and Ivan Pavlov for their revolutionary contributions to medicine -- an impressive company.

So what is it that these men contributed to medicine in order to receive this prestigious honor? To answer this lets briefly look at what we knew before. It had already been established that there are two main components of the immune system: innate and adaptive/acquired immunity. While the innate arm includes basic barriers of protection such as skin, saliva, tears and some cells which hunt foreign objects indiscriminately, the adaptive arm of the immune system is focused on mounting a strong defense directed at highly specific target sites on foreign objects.

The contribution of these scientists has bridged the understanding of how these two parts of the immune system interact. According to "until the work of Beutler, Hoffmann and Steinman, the mechanisms triggering the activation of innate immunity and mediating the communication between innate and adaptive immunity remained enigmatic." However, it is now clear that the innate arm is vital for the adaptive arm to function - by "presenting" foreign substances (via dendritic cells) to the adaptive immune system and also by enhancing its function. These revelations have significantly impacted our understanding of the immune system and also uncovered some of the pathomechanics underlining autoimmune diseases.

Application of this research has also benefited patients by improving vaccines and augmenting immunity against cancer to name a few, and there is no question that the contribution of these laureates will continue to be the foundation for further advances in medicine.

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