Professor Di Virgilio, Professor Rajewsky, what are the key themes of the I & I Conference?
Klaus Rajewsky: There will be four thematic blocks over the conference’s three days. The first one, on Sunday, will focus on how hematopoietic cells develop. Researchers have recently discovered numerous new techniques that make it possible to study this development more effectively, even in living organisms. The new procedures will be discussed at the conference in order to encourage attendees to use them in future research.
Michela Di Virgilio: Thanks to these cutting-edge technologies – such as single cell sequencing and DNA bar coding – we will in the future have a much better understanding of how the immune system works and how it interacts with every tissue and organ in the body.
The first thematic block on Monday will concentrate on adaptive immunity. It will mainly explore the variety of mechanisms that enable cells of the immune system to recognize so many different pathogens and produce specific antibodies that render the microorganisms harmless.
Klaus Rajewsky: The second thematic block on Monday will deal with the complex interactions between the immune and nervous systems, focusing on the major role that the immune system plays in the development of neuroinflammatory diseases like multiple sclerosis and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. We expect five of the world’s leading scientists in this field to provide an overview of their current research.
On Tuesday, the program will focus solely on immunotherapies – a really hot topic and one in which medical research has recently made rapid advances. The possibilities range from transferring special T cells that attack tumors to administering antibodies that boost the activity of T cells and other immune cells. It is a broad field on which several really outstanding researchers will give talks. We’re very excited about this.
How many attendees are you expecting?
Michela Di Virgilio: Around 300 people have registered for the conference so far. We have drawn a diverse group of attendees, from students to group leaders to professors and clinicians. We’re very pleased about this. In addition to the 16 main speakers, some 100 scientists will present their latest research findings in poster format and will be available to discuss their work with other attendees.
Which event or which talk are you particularly looking forward to and why?
Michela Di Virgilio: That’s a question I can’t answer. As I said, in each thematic block the world’s elite researchers in these fields will be giving a talk. And I’m looking forward to every one of them.
In your opinion, which of the topics mentioned will in the future produce the greatest medical benefits? Or are there already specific therapies for patients in the pipeline that will be presented at the conference?
Klaus Rajewsky: A whole range of patients are already benefiting from immunotherapies, many of which have been developed recently, and which will be discussed on the last day of the conference. They have recently revolutionized especially cancer treatment.
For example, until a few years ago, patients with advanced malignant melanoma had almost no chance to survive. 95 percent died of the disease within a short time. With modern immunotherapies – which prime the body’s own immune system to attack the malignant cells – we are now achieving cure rates of 30 to 40 percent.
The treatment of lymphomas, which are tumors of the lymphoid tissues, has also recently become much more successful thanks to immunotherapies. Our hope is, of course, that every type of cancer will one day be curable using this approach.
Where have the greatest difficulties come from so far?
Klaus Rajewsky: In every type of immunotherapy used so far, some patients respond to the treatment and some don’t. Our biggest challenge at the moment is to find parameters which would give an indication of whether a certain type of immunotherapy is promising for a specific patient – also, of course, to spare patients from the side effects associated with each immunotherapy. This will certainly be a topic of much discussion at the conference.
Our research could possibly bring about further advances once we are able, through sequencing, to more accurately identify the receptors of T cells through which the cancer cells are attacked. The conference will also include a talk on this very difficult task.
In addition to cancer, are there other diseases that in the future may be curable through immunotherapy?
Klaus Rajewsky: Cancer is currently very much the focus of these efforts. But, of course, our aims are much higher. It’s becoming increasingly clear that there isn’t a single disease where the immune system isn’t involved in some way or another. This is another reason why immunology plays such an important role in all areas of medical research.
Michela Di Virgilio: In diseases like Alzheimer’s, for example, we still have to learn a lot more about their pathogenesis before we can develop a really effective therapy. But fortunately we now have the tools to do precisely that. So I expect to see many advances in this field in the future. This will be the topic of the third thematic block, on Monday afternoon.
Klaus Rajewsky: We have discovered, for example, that immune processes outside of the brain directly influence immune processes within the brain. Inflammations, wherever they occur in the body, can thus produce pathological changes in the nervous system.
We know that the brain has its own immune cells, called microglia, which are basically macrophages – a kind of scavenger cells – that eliminate pathogens. The tasks they perform are likely more extensive and important than we previously thought.
Michela Di Virgilio: Microglia are an especially good example of the wide variety of ways in which the immune system develops and functions in relationship to its tissue and organ environment. This aspect will run through the entire conference and will be a topic of discussion over and over again.
Why is the conference so important for the I & I Initiative on which 23 research groups from five Helmholtz Centers are collaborating in order to find answers to the most difficult questions in immunology?
Klaus Rajewsky: Above all, the conference can help the scientists involved in the initiative to establish an even stronger network among themselves. We’re currently developing a joint immunology program and hope very much that this will become a key pillar of Helmholtz’s overall concept in the next round of funding. The conference, where we’ll be discussing immunological topics at a really high level, should serve as a sort of crystallization point.
Michela Di Virgilio: We also want the conference to be an interactive platform. The individual sessions are designed in such a way that the world’s leading researchers first provide an overview of the current state of knowledge as well as what the future might bring. But afterwards there will be lots of opportunities and time for discussion. We hope very much that this will bring about a lively exchange of ideas.
Anke Brodmerkel conducted the interview.