Unlocking the secrets of the immune system to tackle disease

Paul-Peter Tak, Chief Immunology Officer & Senior Vice President R&D Pipeline, GSK, highlights the work that is being done to explore the immune system.

We all know that a strong immune system is important for our health, keeping colds at bay and warding off infections. It is the body’s first line of defence – a complex network of specialist cells and mediators of inflammation that springs into action to protect us against invading germs, from the moment we are born, every day of our lives.

And yet as science evolves we are learning that the immune system does so much more than protect us from an outside attack. And when these cells stop working properly, it can lead to a range of diseases that impact almost every area of medicine, such as asthma, arthritis and cancer. 

As an immunologist who has studied the science of the immune system for more than 25 years, I have always been fascinated by the central role it plays in disease, and also by the potential to harness its power and alter the fundamental course of disease. Growth in our understanding of the immune system means scientists now have real opportunities to develop medicines capable of doing just that. 

Our immune systems are hugely complex, made up of millions and millions of cells that interact with each other in so many different ways. 

When working properly together, these cells are like a finely tuned orchestra playing in harmony. But when a cell falls ‘out of tune’, it can be highly disruptive.

Paul-Peter Tak, Chief Immunology Officer and Senior Vice President Research and Development Pipeline, GSK,

This disruption can cause illness. It may be that cells in our immune system wrongly attack and destroy healthy body tissue by mistake; perhaps they don’t identify and destroy the unusual cells they should, resulting in the growth of a tumour; or they may harbour bacteria or viruses for many years resulting in unresolved infection.

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Rapidly evolving science and relevance for many therapy areas explains why the field of immunology has become a fertile area for the discovery and development of new medicines – if we can pin-point exactly where these changes in our immune system are happening, and how, we could have the starting point to develop a new medicine.

That’s by no means an easy challenge, but our research teams believe immunology has the potential to help in the development of medicines to tackle respiratory diseases, cancer, metabolic, infectious, neurological and inflammatory diseases. We also recognise that because the science is progressing so quickly in this field we won’t discover everything on our own. And so we’re joining forces with world-renowned academic scientists to identify the exciting areas of research that our drug discoverers should be exploring. We’ve invited some of the brightest academic scientists in the world to join us in our laboratories, where they’ll be continuing their own research while gaining access to our world class technologies.

In turn we hope to learn from their different skills and ways of working. I believe that will lead us down a path we’ve not thought of yet – to discover the next breakthroughs in immunology that will help us to develop transformational therapies for patients.

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