From Pedro Lira
Akiko Iwasaki, a global reference in immunology, lives for Covid-19
In normal times, Akiko Iwasaki addresses a fundamental question: how does immunity begin and stay on slimy surfaces? When the Yale University he works at temporarily closed labs that weren’t focused on fighting Covid-19 in March 2020, his routine was to study the new disease day and night.
“Our goal was to analyze the immune responses evoked in infected patients in real time in order to develop a more efficient therapy.” In this way, after almost a year, the professor and researcher became a global reference for the new virus. In the end, he found, for example, that the viral load in the patient’s saliva in the first moments of infection can help predict the severity of the disease and that men are twice as likely to die from Covid-19.
For the immunologist, the production and distribution of vaccines in just one year is a historic milestone that was only possible thanks to basic research. “This speed is the result of decades of basic research that plays a central role in critical situations,” he says. By the way, your budget ended in no time at all. “Fortunately, we have received many donations from corporations, philanthropists, and research funding agencies to continue their studies.”
The scientist is emphatic: other pandemics will come and society must learn from experience. “Events like this will always happen,” she says. “We forget because we settle in after they’re over. Will we learn this time? Will we be prepared for the future? “
Iwasaki drew some lessons from 2020 – a year that seemed like ten to her – particularly the importance of working together. “We cannot do science in silos. We need the joint work of mathematicians, epidemiologists, virologists, immunologists, and each must understand what the other is doing. When everyone comes together, the outcome has a lot more impact. “
In line with this logic, Iwasaki invests in the training of young researchers who are the driving force behind his laboratory, she says. “You need to come from a multidisciplinary background that has more creative reflections and more meaningful impacts. In dealing with more experienced scientists, one generation learns from the other. “
Iwasaki also advocates a more pluralistic science. “Interacting with different professionals is critical not only for the disciplines, but also for ethnic and gender groups. All kinds of diversity help create a science of excellence. “
The same applies to the ecological and social diversity of Brazil, with which, according to the immunologist, the country can only win if it knows how it can benefit from it. “This plurality will change the future of science.”
For 2021, Iwasaki wants to return to his main question: How are antigens in contact with the mucous membrane absorbed, processed and presented to the immune system? “I hope we have a vaccine and can re-examine what piqued our pre-pandemic curiosity,” he says. “All the unanswered questions raised by scientists are still important.”
Pedro Lira is a journalist and social media at Instituto Serrapilheira
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