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Dead ends in cosmology


Dead ends in immunology
Avrion Mitchison Scientist
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The work in the 1970s in two fields, not unrelated but somewhat distinct, and those are the T-cell receptor, long referred to in those days as IGT or sometimes IGX, and thought to be related to the immunoglobulins, and that led a number of groups up the garden path and they got that wrong. And I certainly thought it the most- the best guess would be that the T-cell receptor would turn out to be something like immunoglobulin. I did have a reservation about that, I think, all the way along- I hope I am not reading retrospectively in my favour- which was the- the earlier work, the Benacerraf gel work that I mentioned, which showed that T-cells- the structures which T-cells recognise are very different from the structures which antibodies recognise. And if that is true then it makes it that much less likely that the two kinds of molecule are the same or very closely related, but certainly in the- in that period, in the 1970s, many people thought that the isotypes, the immunoglobulin isotypes, which were just being- being worked out at the time so that it wasn't that there was one antibody gene, there was a string of antibody genes running along one particular chromosome, that that string would simply be lengthened and somewhere further along the same chromosome, the same area, a T-cell receptor would turn up. And that just turned out to be wrong and one can ask why so many good labs got it wrong, and that is an interesting question, and perhaps that's worth discussing. And I've just- but before doing so, I'd like to mention the second area which I think is distinct, which is suppression. The work on suppressor factors and on contra-suppression, Gershon's term, got things so unrepeatable and so badly wrong that I think that work is wholly discredited. But again we can ask why so many people were misled, and I think, I do think that is worth discussing. Let me mention one piece of backlash, a personal backlash so to speak. I wrote a paper, maybe with Katya Simon, I don't remember who the co-author was, in- published probably on- sometime into the early 1980s, or mid 1980s- which was about suppression in the context which I have mentioned of mediated by a particular MHC alleles, and I got a review back from the Journal saying- this is both very flattering, it's almost unrepeatable because it is so flattering, but it shows the tenor of the time, it said- it's intolerable that people should be writing papers about suppressor cells because they don't exist, The- however I think we should publish this paper because it is so clearly written. And that- that was the tenor of the time. So why did things go so badly wrong? And how could- how can they be prevented from going so badly wrong in the future? I think it has something to do with labs growing in size but without their responsibility being made clear. I think that the- you could well argue that the mistakes made about suppression in the Benacerraf lab, and possibly by Mark- probably by Mark Feldman in my own lab, were instances where the work was credited and because people thought that the senior people concerned, Benacerraf and in University College, myself, were directly responsible for the work, and I think that was amply justified in the case of Benacerraf lab because he did put his name on those papers, although I honestly don't think that he- I don't think he should have done. I think that he did not look at the data carefully and didn't ask about the controls, and all this and all that. And I didn't put my name on it, but nevertheless I am pretty sure that those- that work gained credibility because it was- because it came from places where work was trusted. And once that starts happening, it spreads. If it- if work gains credibility because it comes from a credible centre, then less- other groups with a- without much of a track record come jumping in and work which would seem confirmatory gets published.

Avrion Mitchison, the British zoologist, is currently Professor Emeritus at University College London and is best known for his work demonstrating the role of lymphocytes in tumour rejection and for the separate and cooperative roles of T- and B-lymphocytes in this and other processes.

Listeners: Martin Raff

Martin Raff is a Canadian-born neurologist and research biologist who has made important contributions to immunology and cell development. He has a special interest in apoptosis, the phenomenon of cell death.



Listen to Martin Raff at Web of Stories



Duration: 6 minutes, 16 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2004

Date story went live: 29 September 2010