The Univeristy of Melbourne The Royal Melbourne Hopspital

A joint venture between The University of Melbourne and The Royal Melbourne Hospital


30 Apr 2021

What is Immunology?

Written by Research Fellow, Dr Hamish McWilliam and Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Fern Koay to celebrate the Day of Immunology.

Immunology is the arm of science that studies the amazing network of cells and tissues that are dispersed throughout our body making up the immune system.

This is an astoundingly complex dance of diverse white blood cells, and the chemicals they produce, that protect us from foreign invaders (like viruses), from diseases within (like cancer) or generally maintain our body in good health by clearing junk (like dead cells).

Studying immunology is like tackling an elaborate and complicated puzzle – the only thing is, with this puzzle, we weren’t given the image on the box to tell us how it fits together.

And it’s not just two-dimensional, it’s in 3D, and it changes dynamically through time! Throughout your life and age, your immune system evolves, and even gains memories along the way. It can be different depending on whether you get stressed, what diseases you’ve had, and other experiences encountered through life.

Some immunologists devote their waking hours for much of their life to ponder how one piece of the puzzle fits into another. For example, how does one white blood cell get told when to start fighting a virus, or a bacteria? What are the ‘weapons’ that white blood cells use to attack cancer? These individual puzzle pieces may be small, but make up essential parts of the myriad of interactions that define our immune system.

Each question may take one scientist’s lifetime to answer, but it is an essential part of the larger story. Like most, we hope to contribute to the whole puzzle that will emerge greater than the sum of its parts.

Why is immunology worth devoting more time and resources to? Because if we are going to conquer infectious diseases like COVID-19, we need know what part of the immune system to trigger that will make us immune (spoiler alert, not every puzzle piece makes a contribution).

The immunology field is already progressing by leaps and bounds, since the first immune cells were discovered over 100 years ago, to our current age where we can develop effective vaccines within just one year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the very existence of devastating diseases such as COVID-19, cancer or autoimmunity shows that we still have not pieced together enough of the puzzle.

To add to it, immunology is just one of the scientific disciplines that promise to help us in our cause – along with virology, molecular biology, and biochemistry, to name a few. If we had a more complete puzzle, then perhaps we could find better, quicker, ways to create healthier and happier populations.