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May 15, 2020

Interview with Ilya Mechnikov's Follower, Professor of the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, School of Biology, Olena Klymova: for the 175th Anniversary of the Nobel Prize Winner


Ilya Mechnikov had and still has many followers around the world. And one of them is Olena Klymova, Doctor of Biological Sciences, Professor of the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, Karazin University School of Biology.

Olena, when did you first read Mechnikov’s works and how did they influence you?

After graduating from Kharkiv University and defending my PhD, I had another internship at the Research Institute of Immunology of the USSR Academy of Sciences and the M. M. Blokhin Oncology Center, and it was there that I became interested in immunology and first read Mechnikov’s works. Undoubtedly, they greatly influenced the choice of my scientific path. It was his systems approach to studying organisms that fascinated me. Three years after graduating from the University, I started working at the Kharkiv Research Institute of General and Emergency Surgery of the Ministry of Health of the USSR. At that time, the staff of the immunological laboratory of the Institute studied only humoral immunity. I began to introduce new methods of cellular immunology and study phagocytosis in patients with various pathologies. In 1991, I became head of the diagnostic laboratory at the Kharkiv Research Institute of General and Emergency Surgery and began to develop various immunological areas of research that Mechnikov’s works focused on.

The study of phagocytosis and the peculiarities of inflammatory reactions was very important for the examination of patients with dangerous conditions. I believe that the systems approach in immunology suggested by Mechnikov is unsurpassed. Yes, today the methods of biological research and diagnostic methods in laboratory medicine have changed and improved a lot. Scientists can decipher the genome in half an hour, having certain equipment and chips, and quickly analyze a huge array of data. But, unfortunately, modern science has considerably lost the systems integral approach to metabolism of the entire organism. We should learn Mechnikov’s analytical approach to studying the development of a pathological process, starting from the cell, tissue, system and the human in general.

For many years, Ilya Mechnikov studied the processes of intracellular digestion and in 1901, he presented a general theory of immunity, in which he formulated the role of intracellular digestion of foreign antigens in the fight against various infections.

Today, when there are no antiviral medicines to treat the pandemic Covid-19, the state of immunological protection is very important for humans — complete phagocytosis and the effectiveness of binding of virus-neutralizing antibodies. The more effective all stages of phagocytosis in humans, the more successfully the body fights against the viral pathogen, which often causes fever. In medicine, this is one of the axioms, and that is why it is not recommended reducing temperature during a cold. Mechnikov developed his theory of phagocytosis, which originated from observations of starfish, into a system that explains inflammation and immunity phenomena. Prior to that, medicine regarded inflammation only as a harmful process for the body. Mechnikov proved that inflammation is one of the protective, immunological reactions to infection. Indeed, today, people who are either genetically or in the course of life have poor innate immunity — phagocytosis — are more prone to new infections. And by the way, why do people who have concomitant diseases suffer from coronavirus more often? Because throughout life, we accumulate antigenic load in the body. We carry in our body from three to five kg of bacteria. This antigenic load distracts our immune system in the course of life to constantly fight it, which leads to a reduced or “scattered” response of our immune system to new viruses and bacteria.

Should everyone then know their level of immunity, genetic diseases and other possible risk factors?

We should never go to extremes. Complete ignorance of your health is not good, but excessive anxiety causes unnecessary psychological stress. If a person is not clinically concerned, it is not necessary to find out their immunological and genetic map. The body functions in a complex way, and even if we find in a person a polymorphism of genes or disorders in some part of the immune system — it does not mean that the person will necessarily continue to develop any disease. There is such a thing as an adaptive immunological module, an average immune status of a person, which means that one link of immunity complements or compensates for the insufficiency of another. And when one link is reduced, then, as a rule, the other link is compensatorily increased. You don’t need to run and buy medicine to boost your humoral immunity or interferon system if you don’t have any disease. As Mechnikov believed, you need to maintain your immune system by leading a healthy lifestyle. He set out his idea in the doctrine of orthobiosis — a reasonable way of thinking and a reasonable way of life, which leads to the manifestation of higher human abilities, which leads to the satisfaction of all types of needs. Mechnikov paid great attention to the intestinal microbiome state and believed that the most important thing to maintain immunity is a balanced diet and improving body’s endurance. These two points are very important.

I think that today’s situation with the high pathogenicity and virulence of Covid-19, will make people take a new look at the medical and biological sciences. Science will change its priorities and focus on the development of biotechnology, immunobiotechnology and improved methods of differential diagnostics.  It will become clear that the most important thing is to recognize, neutralize and eliminate the pathogen, because the triggering factors of many diseases are infectious pathogens.

Interview by Yana Tarasenko, Press Service of the Center for Public Relations

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