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28 Oct 2019

International Congress of Immunology: Insight from Dr Alexandra Corbett

Dr Alexandra Corbett recently travelled to Beijing for the International Congress of Immunology, the biggest immunology-themed conference in the world. 

Here are her insights.

Participant 5953.

That was the number noted on my name badge when I attended the International Congress of Immunology, held in Beijing this week.

This record-breaking conference welcomed 6506 attendees from 78 of the 84 countries involved in the International Union of Immunology Societies (IUIS), to share the latest in immunology research.

There was a strong and well-attended program – standing room only in some sessions – and an excited and friendly vibe, particularly among the younger members of the audience. I was impressed by the amount of unpublished work presented, as well as by the strong presenting and questioning skills of the many Chinese students.

It was fabulous to see Peter Doherty give the opening Keynote Lecture “Immunology: Past, Present and Future” in his characteristic laid-back, but highly informative style (only Peter can seamlessly weave stories of Roman Soldiers and influenza immunity into the one presentation).

It occurred to me later that he was perhaps the only speaker who seemed undaunted to face the 6000-strong crowd…even Luke O’Neill (Ireland), who gave an amazing talk on the exponentially growing field of immunometabolomics, sounded a little nervous (and spoke a little too quickly for my note taking skills).

There were many amazing presentations over four days; unfortunately, I missed most of those from my Doherty Institute colleagues (e.g. Laura Mackay, Jose Villadongos) since there were 13 concurrent sessions to choose from (not to mention 500+ posters each day), but I’m sure they did a great job.

One that stood out was by Wayne Yokoyama (US), who gave a clear explanation of NK licensing and his amazing work defining the receptors responsible through creation of a library of Ly49 gene knockout mice. The generation of clever new tools (and not just big data analysis) is instrumental for advancing many areas of immunity.

On Monday I was privileged to share our work on Mucosal-Associated Invariant T (MAIT) cells in one of the symposium sessions. I gave a fairly broad overview, covering antigen discovery and steps to understand MAIT cell antigen recognition, protective vs pathogenic role in infection models and some thoughts towards how we can boost or block MAIT cells therapeutically – still way into the future for this relatively recently-described cell type.

I felt like quite a celebrity with the many questions and the discussion that followed after the session; and through the conference I already have two potential new collaborators.

The theme of the balance between immune protection and avoiding autoimmunity was highlighted by many, including Tak Mak (Canada) who quoted Lao Tzu from the Tao Te Ching: “countess words count less than the silent balance between the ying and the yang”.

Tak Mak’s talk was inspiring, and focused on neural-immune interactions – something described as far back as 1849, when Rudolph Wagner described that stimulating the vagus nerve of dogs had effects on the spleen.

This was also an ongoing theme for me throughout the conference – many earlier observations are now beginning to be understood, partially due to advances in technology, but also through an understanding that each topic (or cell type) does not work alone.

I felt proud of the Australasian Society for Immunology who were presented with the International Day of Immunology Campaign Award.

It is difficult to describe the amazing experience of attending the invited Faculty dinner – a Chinese banquet and show – food is certainly a large part of the culture and was shared generously, not just at the official dinner, but by friends new and old alike (one evening we were lucky enough to be taken to a Mongolian meal - I should say feast - in a yurt).

Overall, my experiences of Beijing (climbing the great wall, navigating the subway with two kids, accidentally ordering chicken’s feet, meeting many friendly and helpful Chinese people, looking 360 degrees before you cross the road, and even finding the odd Melbourne-quality coffee) will certainly tempt me back again. And for someone who doesn’t like to travel, I am even considering the next ICI in Cape Town in 2022.