Sum of i^2: Interdisciplinary immunology

By Lorenz Adlung

Illustration by Anne-Gaëlle Goubet for SYIS

The sum of many parts
I love immunology. Studying the immune system in all its complexity is thrilling and fascinating. It is challenging, but every day, I learn something new: Seeing things from a different angle. It is my firm belief that immunology is a research branch that offers, but also requires, particularly versatile perspectives.

In my TEDx talk “Let’s talk science – it saves lives”, I argue why medical research in general needs to involve experts from multiple fields. Immunology represents a paradigm in this case. The fact that data generation per se is no longer a limitation (as outlined in my previous SYIS blog post) is not unique to immunology. The technology for high-throughput and/or high-quality data does exist. Computational experts are needed for data analysis, and mathematical modelling is applied across all fields of study ranging from developmental biology to cancer research. What is it that makes immunology unique?

Figure 1: Number of publications mentioning “interdisciplinary immunology” on PubMed per year since 1973.

The immune system is involved in almost every physiological process from cognition to digestion. When I asked the scientific community on Twitter to name any disease the immune system is not involved with, there were hardly any suggestions… Do you have any? The immune system awaits us behind every corner of life sciences. Since you are reading these lines, you probably share my enthusiasm and curiosity about immunology to some extent. From outside our precious scientific community, I see a trend to involve experts from other disciplines within the last decade. In 2011, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Bruce A. Beutler, Jules A. Hoffmann and Ralph M. Steinman for their fundamental discoveries concerning innate and adaptive immunity (link). In the years after, the number of publications on “interdisciplinary immunology” started rising (Fig. 1). Of course, there are plenty potential covariates – reasons that could possibly explain the rise. However nowadays, experts with different backgrounds are working all together in immunology: Computer scientists, physician scientists, molecular and cell biologists, microbiologists and virologists, biochemists, mathematicians, and physicists. This variety is present in my own group, too. Even though we are just six people working in “systems immunology”, our backgrounds include: molecular and cell biology, mathematics, computer science and medicine. Fun fact: None of us can be considered a “classical immunologist” by training. It is the sum of our backgrounds that builds something bigger. What will be emerging from our joint quest is truly interdisciplinary immunology research [1].

Janus head when facing current challenges
Looking ahead, to sustain these developments of more interdisciplinary immunology research, we need to incorporate concepts into the curricula at universities. Interdisciplinary immunology training programs already exist for instance at the University of Iowa, Tufts, or Stanford Medicine. Education must be broad and inclusive to give students from all backgrounds a chance to understand central concepts in immunology. Because in turn we need those students helping us with their approaches, such as from engineering, to understand the cellular and the humoral immune response as what they are: a complex system. A system as intricate as the immune system can only be understood with various measures in combination by involving multiple fields of study.
Looking back (c.f. Fig. 1), you may argue that the previous rise of “interdisciplinary” publications is true in general, also for other fields, not only for immunology. But immunology not only requires input of experts from many different fields. The output of immunology research translates to different disciplines of clinical research, too. A prime example is immunotherapy. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2018 jointly awarded to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo highlights the role of immunotherapy for cancer research (link). Lately, immunotherapy also yielded promising pre-clinical results in the context of metabolic disorders (Science Translational Medicine). Thus, immunology requires interdisciplinary input, but therefore also provides interdisciplinary output.
Yes, immunology can be quite complex. An aspect hard to understand in immunology is plasticity and its role in health and disease, as nicely outlined in a previous blog post by Jeremy Yeoh. Once we understand such phenomena, benefits can emerge that are valuable even outside of our field (e.g. for transplantation medicine, developmental biology, etc). We must face both sides: the interdisciplinary nature of our research and its wide implications beyond immunology [2]. The COVID-19 pandemic showed that interdisciplinary immunology research is demanded and key to our success. We are not there yet (Nature Immunology Editorial). There are challenges ahead of us. But together, we have the highest chances to succeed. Another reason why I love immunology.

[1] The quote “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts” is attributed to the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC).
[2] Janus is an ancient Italian diety (namesake of the month January) depicted with two faces, looking forward and backward, here rather representing interdisciplinary input and output of immunology research.

The SYIS does not guarantee the accuracy of the content published in this blog. The content does not necessarily reflect the opinion or views of the SYIS.

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