Systems Immunology

The immune system is made up of many parts. But is it the sum of its parts or much more? That’s what our immunologists are trying to find out.

A healthy immune system is made up of many specialized cell types that collectively protect your body from dangers and challenges. Much like the specialized tasks of each member of a football team, each cell type in the system contributes a non-overlapping and important dimension to the immune system. B cells make antibodies. Macrophages engulf and take up debris. Helper T cells support immune responses by providing signals and stimulants to enhance the response of other immune cells. Killer T cells seek and destroy their targets. More than these four examples, we know of many other important classes of immune cells –dendritic cells, monocytes, neutrophils, basophils, and eosinophils –and to make matters even more complicated, all of these populations are diverse and heterogeneous!

Making sense of a system with this much complexity requires tackling questions from two angles. For example, to understand how a car works, it important not only to unravel the blueprint of where the axles, screws, and bolts go and how they fit together, but also to identify how the larger modules – the drivetrain, the engine, and the transmission – can work together to create a working machine.

Our teams consist of bottom-up immunologists who are working at molecular-to-cellular size scales, from unraveling molecular interactions and mechanisms of action, to identifying individual cell subpopulations. We also approach questions from the other angle: top-bottom systems immunologists who take the big picture and create computational models to simulate real behavior of whole signaling pathways and multicellular systems. Most of our research teams integrate both angles of approach – using their experimental data to inform their simulations, and vice versa. Historically, advances in immunology have yielded much knowledge on the components; but rapid advances in state-of-the-art technologies have finally made it possible to study the immune system at a systems level, which is what our researchers are doing!