The Faculty of General Medicine of the University of Debrecen awarded the Debrecen Prize for Molecular Medicine to Shimon Sakaguchi, a professor at Osaka University. We asked him a few questions about autoimmune diseases and the defense mechanism of the immune system.
The number of autoimmune diseases is raising year by year. Why is that?
It is estimated that at least 5% of the population is affected by some sort of autoimmune disease. The frequency of these diseases is increasing in developed countries. During the last 50 years or so, various common autoimmune diseases, such as type-1 diabetes, are somehow increasing in developed countries where the economies are stable, and the quality of life is better than in other places. The cause of this tendency is a big question. We believe that one of the reasons is that the society is becoming more and more hygienic, and we are not much exposed to microbes anymore. This means that the immune system is not stimulated enough, and lymphocytes cannot really fight against microbes. At the same time, lymphocytes – which control immune responses – are not trained, and as a result, autoimmune diseases are not good at controlling autoimmune responses, either. So, in hygienic societies, the number of these diseases are increasing. And if we remove T-cells, which are specialized for immunosuppression, autoimmune diseases happen in animals, and also in humans. So, these findings suggest that lymphocytes together with T-cells are not well-trained anymore.
Some scholars suggest that we should have pets, because they might help our immune system.
Well, basically the immune system of humans is similar to the immune system of other mammals, including dogs, cats or even mice. Whether cats or dogs have any influence on susceptibility to autoimmune diseases in humans – well, we have no idea.
What is your advice for those who start their Phd and do a research? How can they be more efficient?
Well, it seems to me that the most important thing is to have good questions and patience. I myself got interested in the immune system and microbes, the trigger responses to tumor cells, organ transplantation and the mechanism itself which is able to cure autoimmune diseases. What is really important to have a good question and stick to it. The advice that I can give to young Phd students is that technology is advancing, and it is important to have your own question and try to find an answer to it by learning various technology and always challenge that question.