- About Us
- Our Programs
- Our Events
- uCity Square
- Support Us
By Marco Locatelli, IMRSV Arts
Compared to simpler biological systems, your body is a great, unique and beautifully complex machine. The information stored in your DNA is a result of the constant occurrence of evolution, spanning through millennia of interactions with other organisms, some beneficial and some detrimental, as well as the constant mastering of the surrounding environment.
In that time your body, through forming these relationships with other entities and with the environment around has created a very specialized and complex form of defense against dangerous antigens (foreign substances) that are of great efficiency and staggering uniqueness.
Thanks to our collaboration with Integral Molecular, we as IMRSV Arts have taken great interest in the immune response that complex organisms have developed in their specific evolutionary path and found great interest in bridging the biological event of the immune response with the rise of new interesting technologies and shape it them as artistic projects.
As fascinating and simple the idea of fighting viruses and foreign pathogens may seam, the immune response in your body is a very intricate process that keeps evolving and developing on a day to day basis and it is performed in a cascade of events that ultimately brings to the production of the perfect cure for the specific antigen.
It all starts when the immune system is attacked and activated by antigens. Antigens can include pathogenic microorganisms, viruses or bacteria just to name a few. In this immune response process, the main cells that are deployed and involved are the T cells, B cells, and macrophages. B cells differentiate into plasma cells, which secrete antibodies.
The secretion of antibodies by the plasma cells are used by the immune system to neutralize pathogens. The antibody created recognizes a unique molecule on the surface on the antigen and binds to it with the precision of two puzzle pieces meeting and connecting. Using this binding mechanism, antibodies can either neutralize (making a virus unable to attack the cells in our body to reproduce) or “tagging” a certain foreign pathogen so that other cells in the immune system can very efficiently kill the foreign bacteria or viruses.
While plasma cells can only produce a single kind of antibody (making the B cell very specific to a single antigen) these antibodies are produced by the thousands per second to have the best chance to defend the organism they are part of.
The body produces a huge number of specific B cells that produce consequently a huge number of antibodies making this way your immune response incredibly unique, and it is exactly for this uniqueness that your immune response has the potential to neutralize diseases that have been affecting our global, human society for years like Ebola, the flu and maybe have even the solution for very complex diseases like cancer.
Let’s take HIV as an example and the type of immune response that it triggers in humans that have contracted.
In a study published by “Science Immunology“, scientists have identified that people with HIV produce special antibodies that enable them to suppress the virus. This suppression of the virus is the defining factor for the disease to turn into AIDS when the body’s immune system becomes weaker and it can no longer fight common infections.
The patients who live with HIV naturally produce a type of antibody known as broadly neutralizing antibodies (bNAbs) and it is suggested that people with this particular immune system profile the activity of B cells is less restricted. While bNAbs cannot clear the HIV from your body it could be a step toward developing a successful vaccine.
Studies like these are an important reminder of how the unique immune response to certain antigens is of incredible value for researchers around the world as it could contain the cure for the most dangerous diseases that have ever attacked humankind.
Another example of the research around your immune response is the “immune memory” of Ebola survivors. In an article posted by “Nature“, Scientist in Yambuku (Democratic Republic of the Congo) have invited 14 survivors from of the first documented Ebola outbreak in 1976 to study the lasting effects of the organism immune memory against Ebola and found that the Ebola survivors were still immune to the virus after 40 Years from the first outbreak.
Researchers found that cells from all 14 can still make antibodies in response to the Ebola virus, making them immune to the virus. These created antibodies have extremely important value for scientists because this is the type of immunity that can be used to make vaccines against viruses like Ebola.
As shown in the previous examples, scientists, with their investigations, have understood and noticed the extreme benefit in studying people’s immune response for both research and social reasons but, given the surge of mistrust in the scientific method one question seems to come to mind; have we forgotten about the uniqueness of our immune system? And if yes, how can we re-appropriate its value?
It is clear that, as a society, if we had the possibility to group and study all the immune responses that every one of us would have against Ebola (for example), perhaps collectively we could help the scientific research field as well as our society to find the cure, or the best collection of antibodies that could help us develop the best vaccine for Ebola and completely eradicate it. All of this would be achieved just by studying our unique response to a specific antigen and looking for the person with the perfect response to completely neutralize it.
A way to see and learn about our unique immune response would be achieved by analyzing the proteins produced by our immune response.
Protein sequencing as been a great tool for us and the scientific field to investigate and catalog the immune response of an individual and it is used constantly in the research field to learn more about antigens and new ways to develop either vaccines or cures to diseases.
The process of sequencing though generates a lot of data, and if we are to catalog a big portion of the population we are talking about hundreds of petabytes of data being processed every year. To be an efficient system this portion of science and knowledge discovery relies on the efficient processing of very large-scale data sets.
This kind of study deals also with at least two very important problems regarding data storage and sharing. First, the privacy of the individuals who contribute biological material such as DNA should be preserved. The second issue deals with the question: “Who controls the data?”. Ideally, that should be the person producing the data.
One great technology has the potential to take care of all these problems I have listed before and that had great media success in the last years: Blockchain technology.
Blockchain, in a broad sense, is a distributed and immutable database, shared and automatically synchronized among all participants. This distributed database technology was first developed to be used as a public ledger in the popular decentralized cryptocurrency, Bitcoin. Although Bitcoin and other similar cryptocurrencies were introduced as decentralized alternatives to coinage and monetary systems, they are mere applications of the underlying blockchain technology.
The most important aspects of blockchain technology are (1) decentralization (a single entity cannot control the database), (2) immutability (no record can be altered), and (3) security (accounts are protected by enhanced cryptographic methods).
Decentralization is the essential contribution of blockchain. Most current approaches require a third party, a governor, to reach and force an agreement between members, but with centralization comes ownership and this thought experiment we had embarked on it’s all about re-appropriating the value of your data and in particular your biological data.
Thanks to this great security system it is possible to apply value (in this case monetary value) to your data, in fact, it can be monetized and utilized with your consent when people interested in your unique immune response like researchers can purchase your data, giving you the possibility to re-appropriate the value of You.
With the proliferation of the mistrust towards the scientific method (anti-vaccination movements) as well as mistrust in the research field, data and blockchain technology are proposing themselves as way to generate monetary value around your biological self and biological data and by doing this greatly helping the biological research field to find new and maybe even revolutionary cures that could be of great usefulness for the future of humanity.