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A history of immunology in 60 objects - the results

2016 marked 60 years since the BSI was founded above a pub near St Mary’s Hospital in London. To help mark our 60th anniversary, we launched our '60 objects in immunology' project. This was partly inspired by the BBC and British Museum’s series, ‘A history of the world in 100 objects’ and looked to explore the history of immunology through objects that have shaped its development. Since the beginning of December, we have released 60 objects that together with our members, we thought contributed significantly to the history of immunology.

Objects in this context didn’t necessarily mean something tangible that could be touched or held in the hand. Rather, the objects chosen represent a seminal step-change in our understanding of immunology and its practice.

After the final object was released, we thought it would be a shame to say goodbye to this project without learning what your favourite objects were. Based on feedback from our members and our social media platforms, we generated a shortlist of ten objects ranging from the horn of Blossom the cow from which Edward Jenner used in his validation of vaccination to experimental equipment like hybridoma technology that has become an inevitability in immunology labs. Here, we announce your top three picks! I should say that the vote was very close and there was only a single vote difference between second and third place. 

Third place: The dendritic cell

Dendritic cell

Discovered in 1973 by Canadian immunologist Ralph Steinman, these so-called antigen-presenting cells act as messengers between the innate and adaptive immune systems, constantly patrolling and capturing antigens from foreign invaders and presenting them to the cell surface of T-cells. For his work, Steinman received the Nobel Prize 3 days after he has sadly passed away from pancreatic cancer. Normally, the Nobel Foundation state that the prize is not to be awarded posthumously, however, the prize committee was unaware of his passing at the time and after deliberation decided that their decision would remain unchanged and Steinman was awarded the Prize. 

Second place: Atomic structure of TCR peptide:MHC complex 

TCR binding peptide MHC

Seeing is believing. In the 1970s, work was underway to understand how T cells mount an immune response against pathogen-infected cells. Working at the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Australia, Peter Doherty and Rolf Zinkernagel, were the first to demonstrate T cell recognition of foreign peptides in complex with host MHC, which results in killing of the infected cell. In 1996, shortly after Doherty and Zinkernagel received their Nobel Prize, Harvard University’s Don Wiley used X-ray crystallography to capture the first high-resolution images of the TCR interacting with the peptide-MHC complex. The image has been described as the holy grail of immunology. 

First place and your favourite object… Structure of an antibody

Antibody structureThe concept of an antibody dates back to Paul Ehrlich, who coined the German term Antikörper (“antibodies”) in his book ‘Experimental Studies on Immunity’ in 1891. Ehrlich described the idea of a “lock and key” mechanism for an antibody binding to a specific antigen. However, for a long time no one could describe how seemingly similar looking antibodies could distinguish and recognise different antigens. The answer to this lay in the 3-dimensional structure of the antibody, revealed independently by Gerald Edelman at Rockefeller University in New York and Rodney Porter and Oxford University.

Their work revealed that antibodies are roughly Y-shaped molecules composed of two polypeptide heavy chains and two light chains. The region near the ‘top of the Y’ is known as the variable region and is what determines specificity for different antigens, while the rest of the antibody, known as the constant region, determines the class of antibody and its interactions with other immune cells.

The work of Edelman and Porter rightly received the 1972 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine and laid the foundation for many scientific and medical breakthroughs for years to come! 

We hope you have enjoyed taking a tour through the history of immunology in 60 objects as much as we have enjoyed sharing it with you!  You can find the full list of all 60 objects and discover the stories behind them on our website.

Shannon Lacombe, Policy and Public Engagement Officer, BSI