How to Program Your Immune System

He’s at it again. Kary Mullis, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the invention of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), is on a quest. He has already revolutionized the field of molecular biology with PCR – now he wants to hack our immune systems to save us all from infectious disease.

It’s a surprisingly simple, powerful solution that Mullis calls Altermune.

First, a basic understanding of how the immune system works is helpful here. When our bodies are exposed to a foreign agent like a bacteria or virus, an immune response starts. There are molecules that detect the invader and signal other molecules to start making mass quantities of antibodies. The new antibodies then travel through our bodies looking for the foreign agent, and when they find one they stick tightly, acting as a red flag for a hungry white blood cell to come in for the kill.

This process can take up to a month to ramp up.

Mullis wanted to find a faster way – a way to hijack existing immune responses rather than wait for new ones to build up. He was motivated by a worry that the greatest threat to humans in the coming years would come from infectious disease.

So he invented Altermune. It turns out our bodies already have a strong immune response to something called the alpha-Gal epitope, which is a sugar molecule produced by most mammals (but not humans). Alpha-Gal is one of the reasons that pig organs are rejected when transplanted into humans – the human body notices it as foreign and attacks. Mullis thought of using this alpha-Gal epitope and attaching an aptamer to it – a small fragment of DNA or protein that will specifically recognize the virus or bacteria, stick to it, and pull it along for destruction by the white blood cells.

The full cascade looks like this – white blood cell eats alpha-Gal, which is bound to a DNA fragment, which sticks to the virus. It’s a bit like the children’s song “The Farmer in the Dell”, where everyone pulls someone else along with them. So the virus gets eaten up along with the alpha-Gal, even before the body has a chance to mount a full immune response against the virus.

In Mullis’ own words:

“Let’s say you just got exposed to a new strain of the flu. You’re already immune to alpha-1,3-galactosyl-galactose bonds. All humans are. Why not divert a fraction of those antibodies to the influenza strain you just picked up? A chemical linker synthesized with an alpha-1,3-gal-gal bond on one end and a DNA aptamer devised to bind specifically to the strain of influenza you have on the other end, will link anti-alpha-Gal antibodies to the influenza virus and presto, you have fooled your immune system into attacking the new virus.”

Mullis is currently testing the Altermune method on chickens infected with the H3N2 virus, and hopes to have it ready for humans before another widespread flu epidemic happens. If he succeeds, would you sign up to get your immune system reprogrammed?

–Discuss this post on Twitter @IFTFHealth or @accarmichael


Note: Programming Immunity was one of the forecasts we talked about at the most recent Health Horizons conference on the Future of Science, Technology, and Well-being. Altermune is one among many potential methods for programming immunity.

Original post at