Gus Nossal describes his most noted medical research, 2008


Transcript of interview

I've been lucky enough to get involved in the science of immunology fairly early in its history. Now, immunology is the study of nature's defences, it's the study of the antibody molecules that keep us free from disease, and my own contributions have been to what you might call the basic or fundamental side of immunology. That's not curing diseases. That's not inventing vaccines. It's about figuring out how the system works.

Now, if I can use a pretty simple analogy, when I started in immunology 50 years ago, we knew that we could inject a vaccine into a rabbit or a person, and we knew that seven or ten days later, the precious antibody molecules would protect them against measles or polio or whatever it might be, come out. But everything in between was a 'black box'. We knew very, very little about what happened inside the human body after an infection or an immunisation to produce antibodies and it was my good luck to be able to make some contributions to that understanding.

Maybe the biggest single discovery was to find out that one cell of the human body always only produces one antibody - a very, very specialised and precise product - and that was followed later - not by me but by others - with the discovery of monoclonal antibodies, which have been very, very important in both medical research, but more particularly in diagnosis and in therapy.

So that was one thing. Now, the other thing is, there's been a long-standing puzzle as to why the body doesn't make antibodies against itself except in diseased states, when of course it does. That's what we call a 'tolerance problem' - Why are we immunologically tolerant of ourselves? Why don't we reject our own kidneys when I will reject your kidney within seven or ten days if it's transplanted and I'm not given the appropriate drugs? You know, that was a big problem in the early days of kidney transplantation, but yet my own kidney, self-evidently, isn't rejected by me. That's the 'tolerance problem' and I was lucky enough to be able to make some pretty significant contributions to the understanding of that, which is technical and it gets us into the realm of white cells and T-cells and B-cells, but I guess it would be for those two areas that I would be most known - for work done largely in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Acknowledgements