Looking for a crash course in immunology and HIV.
March 14, 2008 9:34 AM   Subscribe

I have been hired to write a slide kit focusing primarily on developments in the field of HIV vaccines. Problem is, I have no medical training at all -- not even a biology course. I need to find resources that will give me a basic background in immunology without assuming prior medical knowledge.

My client is aware of my lack of training, as I've worked with them before and have always been honest about my background. I've been a freelance medical writer for a number of years, and have done a little read-and-regurgitate work on antiretrovirals, but never really picked up the science.

I'll be working with several physicians on this piece, and they will be driving the content. However, I'd like to be able to talk intelligently with them, without stopping every other sentence to stammer, "Uh... what's an envelope glycoprotein, again?" It's important that I impress this client with this project. I don't want to be a transcriptionist -- I want to give them more knowledge, and more intelligent input, than they were expecting. And I want to be assigned more work in this field.

I start work on Wednesday. With that in mind...

Can anyone recommend resources that can help me quickly learn to understand the basics of immunology, particularly as it relates to HIV infecton? I'm not looking for resources about the virus itself, but about how the body reacts to it. I realize some of this science is still theoretical, and I want to learn about that too.

Most of the layperson-friendly online resources I've seen barely skim the surface of immunology, focusing instead on the MOAs of various ARVs and on practical treatment consideratons. I'm willing to pay for good immunology resources -- say, DVD courses or layperson-accessible texts. Online resources would be great too. Audiovisual or interactive sources would be the best, and they need to start at the basics, because I have no background in cell biology. In order to understand the role of, say, lymphocytes, I need to see it demonstrated in context; a glossary definition isn't enough.

Clearly, I will not be an expert on HIV and the immune system by Wednesday. My hope is that, with the right resources and a couple weeks of study, I'll be able to converse intelligently with someone who is.

I can be reached at immunologycramming@gmail.com if you have any questions.
posted by anonymous to Science & Nature (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You could read Abbas' Immunology in a few weeks if you were committed to the task. It's accessible to anyone with a basic college-level science background and will expose you to all the words and definitions without trying to make an immunologist out of you.

I found immunology to be one of the most complicated parts of the way the body works, though. Unlike things like the heart or the kidney, simple models just don't suffice to explain it.

If you really have no biology background - don't know about the relationship between DNA and proteins, for instance, or don't understand why a protein's primary structure is of interest when studying it's quaternary structure, or why anyone would be interested in protein conformation at all - you're not going to achieve any kind of understanding of immunology in a couple of weeks, though. In that case you might just try to muddle along as best you can; the textbook is merely going to annoy you.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:49 AM on March 14, 2008

Immunobiology at the NCBI bookshelf. For contractual reasons, they do not link to the whole book. Instead, if you would like to read it cover-to-cover online, take one of the chapter names and search for it in the search field.

It's written for an undergraduate biology audience, but popular science books sometimes simplify things too much, so that might be right. You can look up anything you don't understand elsewhere in the NCBI Bookshelf.
posted by grouse at 9:50 AM on March 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I know this will sound like a facetious answer, but I'm very serious: The Cartoon Guide to Genetics.
posted by Class Goat at 9:50 AM on March 14, 2008

I've worked as a HIV/AIDS educator with no cell biology background myself. The following links may look like they're just for the layperson, but if you delve deep enough into their resources, there's a lot of good material you can learn from:

The Body
The Global Fund
posted by carabiner at 10:07 AM on March 14, 2008

I'm in a similar position. Had a basic biology course and picked up immunology in about 1 week. I'm actually reading the Abbas Cellular and Molecular Immunology book recommended up top at the moment, but I think it would take at least a week if not more to fully digest.

You might want to start with HIV using this resource.

In that website, there is a particular review article on HIV vaccine development.

All immunology books tend to be really complicated. I think Abbas might be simpler than Kuby (the other big one). I would suggest selecting specific chapters. "Cells of the Immune System" "Antibodies and Antigens" "Antigen Processing and Presentation to T lymphocytes" (with a special attention to the CD4, CXCR4 and CCR5 (?) receptors) "T cell activation" - all important. I'd skip things like "Immunologic Tollerance" "Innate Immunity" if i'm short on time.

To really get HIV, you need to learn the life cycle of the virus (fusion, transcription, integration, budding) etc. There are therapies designed against each step in the life cycle. And then to learn about vaccines, you might want to understand how vaccinations work (there are active and passive immunities). The idea of primary versus secondary activation might also

You can also try getting Abbas in a box.
posted by alex3005 at 11:02 AM on March 14, 2008

You could start with William Clark's new (Feb. 4, 2008) book, In Defense of Self: How the Immune System Really Works

William Clark's In Defense of Self offers a refreshingly accessible tour of the immune system, putting in layman's terms essential information that has been for too long the exclusive province of trained specialists....

Clark also offers important insights on the vital role that the immune system plays in cancer, AIDS, autoimmunity, rheumatoid arthritis, allergies and asthma, and other diseases. Of special interest to all those suffering from diseases related to the immune system, as well as their families, In Defense of Self lucidly explains a system none of us could live without.

Dr. William Clark is Professor and Chair Emeritus of Immunology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is an internationally recognized authority on the killer T lymphocytes involved in organ transplant rejection and in viral immunity. He has written extensively on topics in science and medicine for the general public.

I haven't had the opportunity to look this one over yet, but I've read what I assume is the 13 year out of date previous version, At War Within: The Double-Edged Sword of Immunity, and thought it was marvelous. My only complaint was that it was too sparely illustrated, but I haven't been able to find how many illustrations the new one has.

You could read it in an afternoon, I bet, and thoroughly enjoy yourself, too boot.
posted by jamjam at 12:24 PM on March 14, 2008

I've tutored immunology before, and one of the problems I find with most immunology texts is the level of detail that is provided so early, with little regard for the bigger picture. Students are usually expected to learn the details before they can put them into context, while I find the opposite to be a more useful means by which to understand things. Unfortunately, it is impossible to understand what the immune system does in a physiological sense without understanding what happens at the cellular level (as opposed to, say, the heart, which can be understood at the organ level).

Thus, I would try finding a few lay explanations before tackling the heavier text. The first/best article I read (as a high school student) was a long time ago, an old (mid-eighties, maybe) National Geographic Article titled "cell wars". It had a lot of articles in there, including ones on the then-emerging HIV issue (of course, I'd recommend more modern texts on that topic). Unfortunately, I can't find the article online (though I didn't search extensively).

I'm a bit too far in to be able to tell what's good for the layman nowadays, but there should be more modern equivalents in Scientific American, New Scientist, etc. I would strongly recommend you start with them, despite grouse's (legitimate) concerns that they may be oversimplified. When/if you go for the textbook, focus more on the specific/adaptive immune response (as opposed to the non-specific/innate response), particularly on T cell biology. It's important to realise that the CD4+ T cell is the central player in specific immune responses, and that it's depletion (such as occurs with HIV) has drastic consequences for the host.

I wouldn't worry too much, though. Medical researchers (and physicians especially) are quite good at explaining things in terms that are easily understandable without being inaccurate.
posted by kisch mokusch at 7:22 PM on March 14, 2008

Alex3005, the book I recommended isn't Abbas' 'Cellular and Molecular Immunology'. It's the condensed Readers-Digest format for med students, titled simply 'Immunology'.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:20 PM on March 14, 2008

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