Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Rolf Zinkernagel: Nobel Laureate Lecture Series V

The fifth in Korea University's Nobel Laureate Lecture Series is coming up this Friday.

With all of my reading about and then blogging on the Islamists' London bombings, I had nearly forgotten the world's more inspiring achievements.

Like those of Rolf M. Zinkernagel.

You say that you've never heard of Rolf M. Zinkernagel? Really!? You've never heard of Rolf M. Zinkernagel? Never heard of Rolf M. Zinkernagel? Rolf M. Zinkernagel?

Well, neither had I. I know that I hadn't because his is not a name that I'd forget. For those who know German, "Zinkernagel" sounds as if it would mean something like "zinc nails."

The thought of zinc nails reminds me of my icy winter stay in Fribourg, Switzerland about 19 years ago, when I spent bitingly cold days on my hands and knees using a claw hammer to wrench nails from the exposed, snow-swept floor of a house that friends and I were 'deconstructing.'

And this anecdotal musing is appropriate because . . . well, it's not. But Rolf M. Zinkernagel is Swiss.

He's also important, having won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 1996, along with his Australian friend, Peter C. Doherty.

You can learn more about Zinkernagel by reading his biography at the Nobel site. I almost feel that I should know him, for the paternal side of his family comes from Tuebingen, Germany, where I studied for six years, and Zinkernagel himself was born near Basel, where I stayed for nearly half a year during my time in Switzerland.

Zinkernagel seems to have enjoyed a rich childhood and adolescence. In his biographical reminiscences, he tells us about his years from 12 to 16:

"During that time I had a great number of hobbies: I was introduced by a chemist and collaborator of my father's -- who is also a gifted painter -- to the prehistory of the Basel region. This was extremely interesting, because during the last glacial period this area was not covered with ice, so that many sites of the previous inter-glacial period have survived. At the same time I also attended several handicraft courses, learning cabinet-making and smithing, as well as enjoying dancing and going to the mountains with the Swiss Alpine Club. My father sent my brother and me on a holiday exchange program to England to learn English. I read a lot and was allowed to do a fair amount of travelling through England, France and the Scandinavian countries, between the ages of twelve to sixteen."

It sounds idyllic.

But you're wondering what he and his friend Peter Doherty accomplished that got them a Nobel Prize. Here's what Zinkernagel -- addressing Doherty in his banquet speech -- says:

"Peter, let us face it: We have been very lucky! Had we not found the rules of restricted immune T cell recognition, somebody else would have later."

Humility and humor, I like that. Concise, too: "the rules of restricted immune T cell recognition."

Not that I know what this means. Wikipedia describes it as "how the immune system recognizes virus-infected cells." That doesn't say much to me either, but Zinkernagel's Nobel Lecture tells us more, and if I have time, I'll read it more carefully and report back on it.


Meanwhile, I'll leave you with this: the immune system has a 'memory,' and we inherit its capacity to 'remember' infections. However (and Zinkernagel uses cows and calves to make this point), we aren't born with any immunological memories:

"Calves are born without antibodies because, as for all vertebrates, the immune system is not yet mature enough to produce its own antibody response . . . . In addition, in calves, maternal antibodies cannot be transmitted because of the completely doubly layered placenta. All protective antibodies are transmitted via colostral milk from the mother within 24 hours of birth. If this does not happen, the calf dies within a few weeks as a result of common bacterial infections."

Now, I see why young babies are so prone to infection -- and the importance of breastfeeding! This involves, it seems, a primary function of "immunological memory":

"[The] transfer of immune antibodies of the mother to protect offspring [occurs] during the phase of maturation of the immune system after birth."

No, I don't quite understand this, but I guess that along with Bob Hope, we can all say thanks for the mammaries . . . uh, memories.


At 12:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, your anecdotal musings about an icy winter day in Switzerland in correlation to Zinkernagel ARE kind of appropriate, because Zinkernagel could also be nicknamed 'Sargnagel' in a way, which means nail of a coffin....

At 4:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hmmm ... yes, I suppose that winter is a kind of 'death' and thus has symbolic resonance here.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

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