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A Brief History of Immune Network Theory: The Reemergence of a Forgotten Paradigm

Monday, April 04, 2011

The network theory of immunology is not currently the predominant paradigm of immunology. The framework emerged in the mid 1970’s.  Later, in 1984, a Danish immunologist by the name of Niels Kaj Jerne, was awarded the Nobel Prize for his immune network “hypothesis”.  He was the first to propose that the antibodies of the system not only recognized foreign antigens, but also recognized and interacted with each other, as part of a network.

Jerne had realized, that, just as the brain is a network of neurons, that could remember, and learn from experience, so is the immune system, a network, of cells and antibodies, that also remember and learn from experience.  And just as the brain has a profound sense of “self”, and an ability to distinguish between “self”, and other, so does the immune system possess this sense of “self”, and the ability to distinguish between what is “self” or part of the body, and what is foreign.

However, in the early 1980s, confusion arose around a protein called IJ, which is the central regulating unit of the immune system in the context of network theory. This is to say that, within the network framework, IJ is a major part of the central core, regulating unit, or “self”, of the system.

Immunologists had mapped IJ to a precise point in the genome but they soon found that the gene to express IJ was missing from the sequence. This came to be known as the IJ paradox. This problem regarding IJ baffled immunologists at the time, to the extent that they threw out the baby with the bathwater. In other words, they walked away from the theory because of the confusion around IJ which, as a central component of the system, is crucial for the theory to work.  Almost all immunologists from then onward, chose to shift their focus toward the details of the system, as opposed to developing this framework for understanding the system as a whole.

In contrast, Network Immunology’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Geoffrey Hoffmann, was captivated by this fundamental riddle, and turned his focus towards resolving IJ.  In 1994 he published the solution to the IJ paradox in a peer reviewed journal.  However, by then, virtually the entire field of immunology had moved away from network theory, and the attempt to understand the larger picture of immune system regulation.  They had moved on, to focus on the details of the system.   Hoffmann, in contrast, continued to develop the immune network theory, applying his background in physics, and mathematical modeling.

An extension to the theory eventually led to a novel HIV vaccine that Network Immunology is developing for protection from multiple strains of HIV.

Today, Network Immunology is the only company in the world, that represents the Network Theory of the immune system, and technologies emerging from it.

For further scientific information, feel free to read the introduction and contents section of Dr. Hoffmann’s book on immune network theory.

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