This post is part of a miniseries on the immune system. Be sure to check out the other posts in this series that you may have missed.
Immunology is the study of the immune system, including all the cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect you from germs. A person who studies immunology is called an immunologist, and there are three types:
Researchers, who study the immune system in the laboratory to understand how it works or how it can go awry and find new treatments for immune system-related diseases
Doctors, who diagnose and care for patients with diseases related to the immune system, such as food allergies or immunodeficiency
Physician-scientists, who are both researchers and doctors and divide their time between the clinic and the laboratory
Nanoparticles may sound like gadgets from a science fiction movie, but they exist in real life. They’re particles of any material that are less than 100 nanometers (one-billionth of a meter) in all dimensions. Nanoparticles appear in nature, and humans have, mostly unknowingly, used them since ancient times. For example, hair dyeing in ancient Egypt involved lead sulfite nanoparticles, and artisans in the Middle Ages added gold and silver nanoparticles to stained-glass windows. Over the past several decades, researchers have studied nanoparticles for their potential uses in many fields, from computer engineering to biology.
A nanoparticle’s properties can differ significantly from those of larger pieces of the same material. Properties that may change include:
Bacteria can cause many common illnesses, including strep throat and ear infections. If you’ve ever gone to the doctor for one of these infections, they likely prescribed an antibiotic—a medicine designed to fight bacteria. Because bacteria can also cause life-threatening infections, antibiotics have saved many lives. However, the widespread use of antibiotics has fueled a growing problem: antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can survive some or even all antibiotics. Other microorganisms, including fungi, can similarly become resistant to the medicines that are used to treat them. Infections from these microorganisms affect many people and are difficult to treat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the U.S. alone, resistant bacteria and fungi infect 2.8 million people each year, and more than 35,000 die as a result.
Pharmacologists research how the body acts on medicines (e.g., absorption, excretion) and how medicines act in the body, as well as how these effects vary from person to person. NIGMS-funded pharmacology researchers are:
Conducting research to design medicines with fewer side effects
Exploring how genes cause people to respond differently to medicines
What we put into our bodies can affect how they function and what they do. For example, a sugary snack will probably make you feel differently than a high-protein meal. Similarly, different medicines elicit different responses in your body, and pharmacologists try to fine-tune each medicine to balance the desired (on-target) with the undesired (off-target) effects—a branch of pharmacology called pharmacodynamics.
Have you ever wondered what happens inside your body when you take a medicine? An area of pharmacology called pharmacokinetics is the study of precisely that. Here, we follow a medicine as it enters the body, finds its therapeutic target (also called the active site), and then eventually leaves the body.
To begin, a person takes or is given a dose of medicine by a particular route of administration, such as by mouth (oral); through the skin (topical), mucous membranes (nasal), or lungs (inhaled); or through a needle into a muscle (intramuscular) or into a vein (intravenous). Sometimes medicines can be administered right where they’re needed, like a topical antibiotic ointment on a scrape, but most medicines need to enter the blood to reach their therapeutic target and be effective. Those are the ones we’ll continue following, using the common pharmacokinetic acronym ADME:
Pharmacology is the study of how molecules, such as medicines, interact with the body. Scientists who study pharmacology are called pharmacologists, and they explore the chemical properties, biological effects, and therapeutic uses of medicines and other molecules. Their work can be broken down into two main areas:
Pharmacokinetics is the study of how the body acts on a medicine, including its processes of absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion (ADME).
Pharmacodynamics is the study of how a medicine acts in the body—both on its intended target and throughout all the organs and tissues in the body.
Adam Gormley, Ph.D., describes himself as a creative and adventurous person—albeit, not creative in the traditional sense. “Science allows me to be creative; to me, it’s a form of art. I love being outdoors, going on sailing trips, and spending time adventuring with my family. Research is the same—it’s an adventure. My creative and adventurous sides have combined into a real love for science,” he says. Dr. Gormley currently channels his passion for science into his position as an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey.
Learning How the World Works
Both of Dr. Gormley’s parents worked in science and medicine—his mother as a medical doctor and his father as a physician-scientist—and they instilled in him a curiosity for how the world worked. When he was young, Dr. Gormley and his parents would tinker with cars or boats and fix broken household items together, all the while talking about the individual parts and how they functioned as a whole. “I always had that technical, hands-on side of me,” he says.
“One of the biggest things I hope for in my career is that in 20 years, I still feel the same joy and enthusiasm for research and training that I feel now,” says Prabodhika Mallikaratchy, Ph.D., a professor in the department of molecular, cellular, and biomedical sciences at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Medicine. Dr. Mallikaratchy talks with us about her career path, research on developing new immunotherapies and molecular tools using nucleic acids, and her belief in the importance of being passionate about your career.
Q: How did you first become interested in science?
A: Growing up in Sri Lanka, I was always a curious child. I remember being drawn to science and math, but there was no particular incident that sparked my interest. By the time I reached high school, though, I had become especially interested in chemistry.
Some might think that protein is only important for weightlifters. In truth, all life relies on the activity of protein molecules. A single human cell contains thousands of different proteins with diverse roles, including:
Providing structure. Proteins such as actin make up the three-dimensional cytoskeleton that gives cells structure and determines their shapes.
Aiding chemical reactions. Many proteins are biological catalysts called enzymes that speed up the rate of chemical reactions by reducing the amount of energy needed for the reactions to proceed. For example, lactase is an enzyme that breaks down lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. Those with lactose intolerance don’t produce enough lactase to digest dairy.
Supporting communication. Some proteins act as chemical messengers between cells. For example, cytokines are the protein messengers of the immune system and can increase or decrease the intensity of an immune response.