AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – We all know about the immune system, but how much do we really know? There is some fascinating research being done in the field of immunology right here in Augusta, courtesy of our the Immunology Center of Georgia at the Medical College of Georgia. Their ongoing research will impact the way we live and our body’s ability to respond to illness. The hope is that it will also teach us what we can do lifestyle-wise to help our immune system.

Brad Means: Dr. Lynn Hedrick is co-director of the Immunology Center of Georgia at MCG. Dr. Hedrick, thanks for being with us and thanks for your research. We appreciate it.

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Brad Means: You know, I think we had you and your husband, the co-director on, and it may have just been your husband, but it was right when this new Immunology Center of Georgia was getting off the ground. How are things going over there now? Are you just nonstop?

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: It’s pretty busy. So we started in mid-August or early August and we’ve been setting up the laboratory and we’ve already tried to hire faculty and that’s going really well and we’re really excited.

Brad Means: Yeah, that’s good. Okay. That’s good news. All right, so let’s help everybody, myself included, understand the human immune system. We’re born with it, right?

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: Yes.

Brad Means: We get a cold when we’re little, the system kicks in and fights it. Am I understanding it correctly?

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: Yes, Yes you are. So the immune system is something that we’re born with, it is supposed to protect us and keep us healthy and it has a couple of different arms of the immune system. I know you’re gonna talk to my husband and co-director later in this segment. He studies the adaptive immune system, which I think everyone is really familiar with because of COVID, right?

Brad Means: Right.

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: We learned a lot about immunology with COVID, and I actually study the early part of the immune system.

Brad Means: Well, so go back to the part we’re born with then. We’ll just try to focus our questions to you on that subject.

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: Sure.

Brad Means: Why is a fever good? I’ve heard that since I was little. “Oh, you have a fever. Oh, that’s good.” No, it’s not. It hurts. It makes you go to bed. Why is a fever good?

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: That’s your immune system responding. That’s why it’s good.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: Yeah. So we have a part of the immune system called the innate immune system, and these are are cells that are early responders. So they respond when you have a virus or a bacterial infection or they even respond to tumor cells and things that the body sees as foreign or dangerous. And so that part of the immune system actually triggers and causes you to have a fever and all of these things because it’s fighting all of those things like viruses and bacterial.

Brad Means: Can our immune system ever turn on us and hurt us? And if so, can you kind of walk me through that? Unless you would rather the co-director, and that’s another thing I should tell the viewers too, we have both of you all on today, each getting their own segment. And so if there are areas of expertise where you’d defer to your husband, please do and we’ll just wait until that segment. But you’re saying, yeah, it can turn against us and hurt us?

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: It can. It can. So it’s there to help us, but it can become hyperactive at times and turn out to hurt us. And that’s something that Klaus can actually talk to you about. That’s really a lot of his expertise. My interest is, and expertise, is probably more in cancer, and that is where the cancer cells can actually trick the immune system to actually work for the cancer cells and not for us.

Brad Means: So what happens? Do our typically good, helpful cells jump onto those cancer cells and they team up against us?

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: So there’s a couple of things. One is that the cancer cell figures out how to trick the T cells to turn them off. And the innate cells, the ones that we’re born with that really give us this kind of protective initial response to foreign things like tumor cells, those cells actually work to actually keep the cancer cell from inhibiting these T cells in this adaptive response.

Brad Means: Why does that happen? Do you know yet? Is it still too early in the research? Why don’t these cells talk to each other in a more benign way?

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: So I think we’re still learning about this, right? So I think the innate cells, the other thing that these innate cells can do, they can actually try to fight and attack the tumor cells themselves. And my research has shown that there’s different types of these immune cells and some actually really function to sense the tumor cells as they’re metastasizing before they can seed into a new tissue. And that’s really important. So that’s a very protective, normal effect of these cells. But they can also be kind of shut down by tumor cells.

Brad Means: How are you doing this? Is it on mice at this point?

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: We try to do mostly studies in humans. We get a lot of patient samples from all over the world, really. And we study patient blood and look at these immune cells because these immune cells are swimming in our blood, right? But we also do mice, we study mice to understand mechanism like why and how things work. That’s hard to do in people. We can get blood from people. We can learn how to do diagnostic work and how to help them. But really understanding the biology, we actually sometimes have to use mice.

Brad Means: Have you noticed a better quality of life, again, at this very, very early stage, in some of your test subjects? Have you done things to them or noticed certain things that might help them as they continue to battle cancer?

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: So we have actually. So one thing that’s really interesting is, you know, a lot of these immunotherapies for cancer work great. They’ve been revolutionary in cancer medicine, on cancer treatment, but sometimes they don’t work at all and sometimes they stop working. And so we’ve been studying patients that respond to some of these therapies versus ones that just never respond or don’t respond very well. And so we look at the blood cells, and I particularly study these white blood cells, these innate cells called monocytes.

Brad Means: Monocytes.

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: Monocytes.

Brad Means: Okay.

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: And these are these early responder cells that recognize tumor cells. And so what we found is that there are different cell types and different proteins on these cells that can dictate whether a person responds to the therapy or not. And the really cool thing is we know that we can look at a patient’s blood before they go on the therapy and we can say, “Oh, well if this person has this cell that has this protein on its surface, this person is more likely to respond to this therapy than someone who doesn’t have this protein and this cell.” Which is really cool because cancer therapies, there’s lots of them and you don’t wanna get on a therapy for six months or eight months and find out it’s not working. And this way you can look at the very beginning, before the person goes on therapy and decide, “Okay, well maybe this person should go on this therapy.”

Brad Means: So can you manipulate an existing cell structure to tailor it to that person’s needs? Or can you make a cell?

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: We’re trying to, that is a goal. One of the things that we’re trying to do is try to make these cells work better, recognize tumor cells better, kill tumor cells better. The other thing we’re trying to do is kind of genetically alter these cells. Like by making them express more human proteins that would be, you know, attacking the tumor cells to kill it. So those studies are ongoing.

Brad Means: Have you had any light bulb moments yet, or moments when you step back from the microscope or the test subject and say, “Oh my goodness, this might be something.”?

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: We’ve had those, yes, we’ve had those. And some of that is actually trying to figure out, and we think we can really detect who can respond to specific therapies in advance.

Brad Means: Well, I’ll probably ask your co-director this question as well, but what’s the goal here? Is the goal here to come up with better treatments to cancer and other ailments? Is it to cure them? Both?

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: It’s both.

Brad Means: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: You know, unfortunately, you know, everybody says, “Well, why isn’t cancer cured?” Well, we’ve made many, many, you know, I think, advances, most of them are immunology-based, but each cancer type is different. So a cancer in the pancreas is a completely different type of cancer than a cancer in the lung. And even though the same immune cells are involved, the tissue, the host tissue, where that tumor grows is different. And that really impacts, you know, I think how well we are able to find cures quickly, right? So a lot of what we do is try to understand, look at these different types of tumors and understand, “Okay, how do we make this tumor, you know, how can we fight this tumor better?”

Brad Means: Right, how can we zero in on it and get the best result?

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: Right.

Brad Means: Last question for you is, do you need anybody, I bet ya folks are watching saying, “Hey, I’ll sign up right now just on the chance that I benefit from it.” Do you need volunteers?

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: We do. We definitely do. We would love to look at, I’m interested in sex differences in cancer, differences between males and females. And there’s a lot of ethnic differences in cancer growth, particularly with African Americans. So it would be wonderful if we can get, you know, patients or subjects to come in and and volunteer to donate their blood to us for research purposes.

Brad Means: Well, I’m sure you will and I applaud the work that you and your husband are doing at the Immunology Center of Georgia and I thank you for being here. You’ve taken, quite frankly, a subject that I found, you know, daunting as a layperson and made it a lot easier to understand so thanks for that.

Dr. Lynn Hedrick: Thank you. Thank you.

Brad Means: Absolutely. When “The Means Report” continues, our conversation continues on the human immune system and the fascinating research being done right here in Augusta. We’ll be right back.

Part 2

Brad Means: Welcome back to “The Means Report.” We are talking about immunology and the research that is being done at the new Immunology Center of Georgia at the Medical College of Georgia. We talked to Dr. Lynn Hedrick in our first segment. The co-director of that center is her husband, Dr. Klaus Ley, and he’s been kind enough to join us for our second segment today. Dr. Ley, thanks, as I said to Dr. Hedrick, for your research and for what you’re doing to help us, hopefully, one day lead healthier lives.

Dr. Klaus Ley: Thank you for having me.

Brad Means: Absolutely. All right. So Dr. Hedrick talked about the innate immune system, the one that we’re all born with. What about the adaptive immune system? Help me understand what that is. Am I correct in presuming that’s the one that kind of comes into our bodies as we grow up?

Dr. Klaus Ley: Yeah, the amazing thing about the immune system is that it learns as we go, right? So you all know about vaccines. Let me take the example of polio. When I was a kid, boys and girls my age, some of them became confined to a wheelchair because they contracted polio. Nowadays polio is mostly gone. That’s because we have a very effective vaccine that prevents polio. That means the immune system learns to deal with this virus and you never get the infection, you never get sick.

Brad Means: So our immune system remembers everything it’s ever attacked.

Dr. Klaus Ley: Our immune system remembers different insults for different amounts of time. Some vaccinations are for life, others, like tetanus you may know, you have to get every 10 years or if you have an accident where you might have contaminated yourself with tetanus virus, you wanna refresh it.

Brad Means: Dr. Hedrick mentioned this during our time together, did the spotlight really start to shine on your specialty, on your field, during the pandemic when we were all thinking about our immune systems?

Dr. Klaus Ley: Yeah, of course. I mean now you say antibody and people know what it is. You don’t have to explain, yes.

Brad Means: What’s herd immunity? I’ve never really fully grasped that. Is it what you said with polio?

Dr. Klaus Ley: So you cannot usually get everybody vaccinated, but let’s say if you get 95% vaccinated, that is often enough to completely eradicate the infection because for the infection to spread, the virus in the infected person has to find another uninfected person in time to infect that person. So if most people are protected, that is enough to prevent the spread. So herd immunity is reached at a certain level and it depends on the specific virus we’re talking about, but it means that everybody is protected even though a few percent may not be vaccinated.

Brad Means: Did y’all or have y’all done any coronavirus research at the center?

Dr. Klaus Ley: I have not.

Brad Means: No. So your focus is primarily cancer and other diseases?

Dr. Klaus Ley: My focus is mainly heart disease.

Brad Means: Okay. Heart disease for you. Vascular for you, cancer for your wife.

Dr. Klaus Ley: Right.

Brad Means: Got it. Okay. So let’s take a look at your efforts in that regard. Have you learned anything, I know it’s early, that has given you hope or optimism that you’re on the right track that might help us when we address vascular diseases and illnesses?

Dr. Klaus Ley: So let’s talk about vascular disease for a moment. You all know what promotes vascular disease: sedentary lifestyle, bad eating habits, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, things like that. That gets it started. But what I study is, specifically, the aspect of the immune system that makes it worse, that makes the disease accelerate beyond what it would normally do. So in other words, in heart disease, your immune system turns against you and amplifies the disease and that’s what we’re tackling. One of the, you asked what was a discovery moment for me, one of the big things we discovered recently is a big differences between men and women in the immune system in their response to cardiovascular disease was quite surprising. Like the top 50 genes that are drivers in men and different genes are main drivers in women. Very big difference.

Brad Means: Okay. You know, that’s a big deal. Why does the immune system turn against us and exacerbate vascular disease? Why doesn’t it do what it’s supposed to do and heal it?

Dr. Klaus Ley: Think about it this way, let’s go back to the virus infection. Virus comes in, immune system wakes up, immune system kills virus, virus goes away. In heart disease you have, not a virus, but you have antigens that the immune system sees. The immune system attacks, but it doesn’t go away. So it lingers on and on and on becomes chronic. And so the immune system deals with that situation in a different way from an acute infection.

Brad Means: So what are you trying to do? Make the immune system back off or suppress it?

Dr. Klaus Ley: Not suppress it. We are working on a tolerogenic vaccine. I have to explain that word.

Brad Means: Sure.

Dr. Klaus Ley: So tolerogenic is a little bit similar to what your allergist might do when you have an allergy. Some of you may have gotten injections in in the forearm of birch pollen or whatever you’re allergic to. And if you do this for many weeks or a year or so, then the allergy becomes better and so we’re trying to do this for heart disease.

Brad Means: How, if in any way, does inflammation play a role when it comes to vascular disease in your research?

Dr. Klaus Ley: Inflammation is in the vessel wall, in the wall of the arteries when you have cardiovascular disease, the disease is called atherosclerosis. Inflammation is always accompanying this, but the immune system, the adaptive immune system, controls the amount of inflammation because it’s really the T cells, one type of adaptive immune cells that call in the innate immune cells that Lynn talked about in the earlier section.

Brad Means: It’s so confusing because typically, and I don’t wanna misspeak here, inflammation is a good thing. If I cut myself and there’s an inflamed red site around the wound, I know that my body is working to attack it. But then conversely, your immune system can cause bad inflammation.

Dr. Klaus Ley: Inflammation is a good thing. It protects you. Yet you talked about fever in the first segment. Fever is unpleasant, but what it does, it makes you rest. You wanna lie down, you don’t want do anything. You don’t want to exercise, you don’t even want to eat. And that rest is what helps your immune system fight the disease. So let’s talk about what the innate immune system really does. The innate immune system is the first responder, sees the insult and then presents the antigen to the adaptive immune system. So this is a technical term. Presenting the antigen means showing the bad actor in such a way that the adaptive immune system can wake up. Now, if that happens and the adaptive immune system does its job, then hopefully the virus is eliminated, everything is over. But when we have chronic situations when you cannot clear the infection, like hepatitis C for example, or when you cannot clear the antigen like in heart disease, then the system goes on and on and on. You have this lingering inflammation.

Brad Means: What might be the end result of your research? And again, I know we’re in the early stages here, but are we looking perhaps at a better pill to address vascular illnesses or might you just go to the cellular level and make sure the disease never happens in the first place?

Dr. Klaus Ley: So my goal is to develop a tolerogenic vaccine, which would be some sort of shot in the arm of some flavor, but we don’t really know yet how often you would have to give it and so there are many details that have to be worked out, but we know a lot about the antigen, so the part that makes the immune system respond and how to manipulate this so that it does not turn against you.

Brad Means: Couple more questions. What can we do to help our immune systems? The innate, nothing probably, the adaptive, are their lifestyle decisions or changes we can make?

Dr. Klaus Ley: Of course. I mean one of the most important things you can do is exercise regularly. That helps your heart disease by bringing up the good cholesterol, pushing down the bad cholesterol. That’s one thing. You can supplement vitamin C. Vitamin C is present in many foods, but you may not eat an orange every day so you might as well take 500 milligrams of vitamin C because that helps the immune system.

Brad Means: So like Emergen-C and products like that? You like that?

Dr. Klaus Ley: I don’t know that particular product.

Brad Means: It’s a vitamin C tablet.

Dr. Klaus Ley: Right.

Brad Means: Yeah.

Dr. Klaus Ley: Right. Yeah.

Brad Means: So you’re a a fan of that, that’s good to take? Or glass of orange juice, good.

Dr. Klaus Ley: Yes.

Brad Means: Okay, good. What about, probably my last question, pandemics in the future, immune issues in the future, are we better prepared now because of what we’ve just been through?

Dr. Klaus Ley: One of the big advantages we have now is that we have RNA vaccines approved. RNA vaccines were not around before corona, before COVID. So now we have this type of vaccine which can be developed at a much quicker pace because it’s made in the lab. And so that is a big plus that will help us respond to the next pandemic. But we don’t know what the next pandemic will be.

Brad Means: Right.

Dr. Klaus Ley: I mean the previous pandemic was 1918, influenza, which has nothing to do with COVID, it’s a very different virus. But you can see how much better we dealt with COVID than with the 1918 flu, which killed millions and millions of people.

Brad Means: Is your work more rewarding or frustrating? Because there’s so much trial and error and there are, in so many ways, constant pressure on you to come up with something that helps so many people, how do you feel when you go home at the end of the day?

Dr. Klaus Ley: Rewarding. But I’m wrong most of the time, that’s the nature of science. So you think you have an idea of how it might work and then you test that idea, usually you are wrong and that’s okay. Then you learn it was not the right idea and then you readjust and come up with a better idea.

Brad Means: And eventually that process of elimination leads to a better idea, right?

Dr. Klaus Ley: Yes, that’s right.

Brad Means: Well I admire and respect you and your co-director of the Immunology Center of Georgia and I appreciate what y’all are doing.

Dr. Klaus Ley: Thank you.

Brad Means: Absolutely. Dr. Klaus Ley.