May 9, 2013
Yesterday I went to a talk by Hans-Peter Hartung about autoimmune diseases of the peripheral nervous system. To start with he gave a summary of similarities and differences between the peripheral and central nervous systems and their relations to the immune system. Of the diseases he later discussed one which played a central role was Guillain-Barré syndrome. In fact he emphasized that this ‘syndrome’ is phenomenologically defined and consists of several diseases with different underlying mechanisms. There is one form which is sporadic in its occurrence and predominant in the western world and another which can take an epidemic form and occurs in China. At a time when medical services in China were very poor this kind of epidemic had very grave consequences. Now, however, I want to return to the ‘classical’ form of Guillain-Barré.
GBS is a disease which is fascinating for the outside observer and no doubt terrifying for the person affected by it. I first learned about it in an account – I do not remember where I read it – of the case of a German doctor. He was on holiday in Tenerife when he fell ill. He recognized the characteristic pattern of symptoms, suspected GBS and got on the first plane home. He wanted to optimize the treatment he got by going to the best medical centre he knew to get treated. The treatment was successful. In GBS the immune system attacks peripheral nerves and this leads to a rapidly progressive paralysis over the course of a few days. In a significant proportion of patients this leads to the control of the muscles responsible for breathing failing and thus to death. For this reason it it is important for the patient to quickly reach a place where the disease will be recognized and they can be put on a ventilator when needed.The disease can then also be treated by plasmapheresis or immunoglobulins. In the talk it was mentioned that in the epidemics in China it was often necessary to put patients on a manual ventilator which was operated their relatives. If this acute phase can be overcome the patient usually recovers rather completely, although some people have lasting damage. It is typical that in a single patient the disease does not recur although there are a small number of cases where there are several relapses and disability accumulates.
It has been suggested that influenza infections, or influenza vaccinations, can lead to an increased risk of developing GBS. This has been an important element of controversies surrounding vaccinations, including those against H1N1. I wrote briefly about this in a previous post. In the talk the speaker mentioned a recent Canadian study indicating a slight risk of GBS due to vaccination against influenza. Nevertheless this risk was still a lot less than that due to actually becoming infected with influenza. There has also been a German study with similar results which, however, has not yet been published. There is another kind of infection which appears to carry a much higher risk, namely that with the bacterium Campylobacter jejuni. I actually mentioned this in my previous post but had completely forgotten about it. In the talk it was pointed out that this infection is quite common while GBS is very rare. So the question arises of why GBS is not more frequent. A possible explanation is that the bacterium is rather variable. The suggested mechanism is molecular mimicry (and it seems that GBS is the first case where molecular mimicry was precisely documented). In other words, certain molecules of the bacterium are similar to molecules belonging to the nervous system. Then it happens that antibodies against the bacterium cause damage to the nerves. Depending on the variant of the bacterium this similarity of the two types of molecules is more or less strong so that the effect is more or less pronounced. There is some idea in this case what exactly the molecules are which show this similarity. They are so-called gangliosides, a type of glycolipids.
This has reminded me of an issue which fascinated me before. Is there a simple explanation of why some autoimmune diseases show repeated relapses while others show a single episode (like typical GBS), a continuous progression or a combination of relapsing and progressive phases at different times? Has anyone collected data on these patterns over a variety of autoimmune diseases?
April 18, 2013
This post is in some sense dual to the earlier one ‘goodbye to Berlin‘. To start with I can confirm that there is no shortage of Carrion Crows (and no Hooded Crows) in Mainz. When I arrived here and was waiting for my landlord to come and let me into my flat I saw some small and intensely green spots of colour in a row of trees in front of me. I knew the source of these – they were what I could see of Ring-Necked Parakeets. I have known for a long time that these birds live wild in England but it was only relatively recently, in the course of my activity looking for jobs, that I realised they were so common in parts of Germany. While in Heidelberg for an interview I observed a big number of them making a lot of noise in a small wood opposite the main railway station. I also saw some of them when I came to Mainz for the interview which eventually led to my present job. In my old institute in Golm I often used to see Red Kites out of my office window. It occurred to me that these might be replaced by Black Kites in Mainz. During my first weekend here I was walking across the campus of the university when I saw a large and unfamiliar bird of prey approaching me. When it came closer I realised that it was a Black Kite. I enjoyed the encounter. Since that I have also seen one from my office window. The Red Kite is a beautiful bird but for some reason I feel closer to its dark relative. It gives me a feeling of the south since the first place I saw these birds many years ago was in the Camargue.
Eva and I have been using Skype to maintain contact. I feel that this big change in our life has not been without benefits for our communication with each other and when I was home last weekend it was a richer experience than many weekends in the last few years. I appreciate the warm welcome I have had from my colleagues here in Mainz and my first days here, while sometimes a bit hectic, have been rewarding. Breaking the routine of years opens up new possibilities. I assured myself that I will not completely have to do without interesting biological talks here by going to a lecture by Alexander Steinkasserer on CD83. This taught me some more about dendritic cells for which this surface molecule is an important marker.
This is the first week of lectures here and yesterday brought the first concrete example of the new direction in my academic interests influencing my teaching, with the start of my seminar on ‘ordinary differential equations in biology and chemistry’. The first talk was on Lotka-Volterra equations. The subjects to be treated by other students in later lectures include ones a lot further from classical topics.
March 18, 2013
Some years ago the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology organized a conference on metabolic networks. I decided to see what was going on in the institute next to the one where I work and I went to some of the talks. The one which I found most interesting was by Zoran Nikoloski. His subject was certain models for the Calvin cycle, which is part of photosynthesis. A motivating question was whether photosynthesis can work in two different stable steady states. If that were the case it might be possible to influence the plant to move from one state to another and, in the best case, to increase its production of biomass. This is of interest for biotechnology. Mathematically the question is that of multistationarity, i.e. whether a system of evolution equations admits more than one stationary solution. Beyond this it is of interest whether there can be more than one stable stationary solution. In fact in this context the issue is not that of absolute uniqueness of stationary solutions but of uniqueness within a given stoichiometric compatibility class. This means that the solution is unique when certain conserved quantities are fixed. One thing I found attractive about the presentation was that the speaker was talking about rigorous mathematical results on the dynamics and not just about numerically calculating a few solutions.
If the system is modelled deterministically and diffusion is neglected there results a system of ordinary differential equations for the concentrations of the substances involved as functions of time. It is necessary to choose which substances should be included in the description. In a basic model of the Calvin cycle there are five substances. In the work discussed in the talk of Nikoloski and in a paper he wrote with Sergio Grimbs and others (Biosystems 303, 212) various ODE systems based on this starting point are considered. They differ by the type of kinetics used. They consider mass action kinetics (MA), extended Michaelis-Menten kinetics where the enzymes catalysing the reactions are included explicitly (MM-MA) and effective Michaelis-Menten (MM) obtained from the system MM-MA by a singular limit. The systems MA and MM consist of five equations while the system MM-MA consists of nineteen equations. In the paper of Grimbs et. al. they show among other things that the system MM never admits a stable stationary solution, whatever the reaction constants, while the system MM-MA can exhibit two different stationary solutions.
After the talk I started reading about this subject and I also talked to Nikoloski about it. Later I began doing some research on these systems myself. Some technical difficulties which arose (which I wrote about in a previous post) led me to consult Juan Velázquez and he joined me in this project. Now we have written a paper on models for the Calvin cycle. In a case where there is only one stationary solution and it is unstable it is of interest to consider the final fate of general solutions of the system. For some initial conditions the concentrations of all substances tend to zero at late times. For other data (a whole open set) we were able to show that all concentrations tend to infinity as . We called the latter class runaway solutions. These do not seem to be of direct biological relevance but they might be helpful in choosing between alternative models which are more or less appropriate. The proof of the existence of runaway solutions for the MA system is somewhat complicated since this turns out to be a system with two different timescales. The system MM-MA also admits runaway solutions. Although the system is larger than MA the existence proof is simpler and in fact can be carried out in the context of a larger class of systems. Runaway solutions are also found for the system MM.
In the paper of Grimbs et. al. one system is considered which includes the effect of diffusion. Restricting to homogeneous solutions of this system gives a system of ODE called MAdh which is different from the system MA. The difference is that while the concentration of ATP is a dynamical variable in MAdh it is taken to be constant in MA. We showed that the system MAdh has zero, one or two solutions depending on the values of the parameters and that all solutions are bounded. Thus runaway solutions are ruled out. Intuitively this is due to the fact that the supply of energy is bounded but this heuristic argument is far from providing a proof. There are many other models of the Calvin cycle in the literature. In general they consider the reactions between a larger class of substances. It is an interesting task for the future to extend the results obtained up to now to these more general models. This post has been very much concerned with the mathematics of the problem and has not said much about the biology. The reactions making up the Calvin cycle were determined experimentally by Melvin Calvin and I can highly recommend his Nobel lecture as a description of how this was achieved
February 1, 2013
For this post I could not resist the temptation to borrow the title of Christopher Isherwood’s novel although what I am writing about here has very little to do with his book. The connection of the title to the content is that I will soon be leaving Berlin after living here more than fifteen years. I have accepted a professorship at the University of Mainz and I will move there in April. The first time I came to Berlin I landed at Tegel airport and I interpreted the Hooded Crow I saw beside the runway as a good omen. This requires some explanation. In those days the Hooded Crow (Corvus corone cornix) was a subspecies of the Carrion Crow. In the meantime it has been promoted to the rank of a species but that will not concern me here – I am not sure whether I feel I should congratulate it on receiving this honour. It differs from the nominate form (according to the old classification) by having a grey body while Corvus corone corone (Carrion Crow in the narrower sense) is all black. These two forms have the classical property of subspecies that they are allopatric. In other words they occur in more or less disjoint regions. On the boundary between the regions there is little interbreeding. The Orkney Islands where I grew up belong to the land of the Hooded Crow. Most of Great Britain and in fact most of Western Europe belong to the domain of the Carrion Crow. Even Aberdeen, where I studied and did my PhD, belongs to the land of the Carrion Crow. This helps to explain why I associate the Hooded Crow with ‘home’ and the Carrion Crow with ‘foreign parts’. It also has to do with the fact that there was a Hooded Crow which nested regularly in a garden near where I grew up in Orkney. I would climb the tree from time to time to keep an eye on the development of the brood and ring the chicks at the right moment. For these reasons the bird in Tegel seemed to tell me I was coming home. Now I am daring to venture once again (and probably for most of the rest of my life) into the land of the Carrion Crow.
When leaving a place it is natural to think about the good things which you experienced there. What were the best things about Berlin for me? The best thing of all is that Berlin was where I met my wife Eva. Eichwalde, where she lived at that time and where we both live now, has a very special feeling for me which will never go away. (Just for the record, we do not really live in Eichwalde but that is where the nearest train station is, with the result that the platform of the station there has something of the gates of Paradise for me.) Of course I cannot fail to mention the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics which has provided me with a scientific home during all that time. I am grateful to the successive leaders of the mathematical group there, Jürgen Ehlers and Gerhard Huisken, for the working and social environment which they created and maintained. Another important thing about Berlin I will miss is the contact with its excellent research in biology and medicine. I have spent many valuable hours attending the Berlin Life Science Colloquium and I feel very attached to the Paul Ehrlich lecture hall where it usually takes place. The wooden seats are hard but the interest of the lectures was generally more than enough to make me forget that. I will also miss the stimulating atmosphere of the group of Bernold Fiedler at the Free University, which has been a source of a lot of intellectual input and a lot of pleasure.
This is perhaps the moment to say why I am leaving Berlin. Ever since I was a student I have felt a strong allegiance to mathematics. As a child I was concerned with metaphysical questions and later I got interested in physics as the most fundamental part of science. During my undergraduate study I realised that mathematics, and not physics, was the right intellectual environment for me. A key experience for me was that through my study plan I ended up doing two courses on Fourier series, a subject which was new to me, at the same time. One was in physics and one in mathematics. The contrast was like night and day. This may have had something to do with the abilities of the individual lecturers concerned but it was mainly due to essential differences between mathematics and physics. By the end of my studies I had specialized in mathematics and my commitment to that subject has remained constant ever since.
For a long time my strongest connection to mathematics concerned intrinsic aspects of the subject. The significance of applications for me was as a good source of mathematical problems. This has changed over the years and I have become increasingly fascinated by the interplay between mathematics and its applications. At the same time the focus of my interest has moved from mathematics related to fundamental physics to mathematics related to biology and medicine. This change has led to a discrepancy between the research I want to do and the research area of the institute where I work. A Max Planck Institute is by its very nature focussed on a certain restricted spectrum of subjects and this is not compatible with a major change of research direction of somebody working there. This is the reason that I started applying for jobs which fitted the directions of work where my new interests lie. The move to Mainz is the successful endpoint of this process. Moving from a Max Planck Institute to a university will naturally involve spending more time on teaching and less time on research. This does not dismay me. The most important thing is that I will be doing something I believe in. Teaching elementary mathematics and analysis, apart from establishing the basis needed for doing research, is something whose intrinsic value I am convinced of.
November 20, 2012
Yesterday I was in Karlstad in Sweden to give a talk on the uses of mathematical modelling in the natural sciences. I was invited to do this by Claes Uggla and I was very happy to have the opportunity to present some of my ideas on this subject. The talk was structured as a series of examples involving applications of different mathematical techniques. Many of these examples have been discussed in some form in this blog during the past few years and indeed a lot of my ideas on the subject were developed in conjunction with the blog posts. The subjects were William Harvey and the circulation of the blood, multidrug therapy for HIV-AIDS, the lizard Uta stansburiana, oscillations near the big bang, Liesegang rings, modelling oscillations in vole populations using a reaction-diffusion system, signal transduction in T cells.
As well as presenting a variety of applications of different types of mathematics I also wanted to explain some mathematical connections between these subjects. One central idea is that structural stability is an issue of key importance in modelling natural phenomena. Most phenomenological models involve parameters or other elements which are not known exactly. Thus to be of interest for applications features of the dynamics of the model should be invariant under arbitrary small perturbations of the system. More precisely, if a model does not possess an invariance of this type but is nevertheless useful this requires some explanation. One possible source of an explanation is the presence of what I call ‘absolute elements’ in the model. For instance, in population dynamics if a population is zero at some time then it will definitely remain zero. This fact is independent of the details of how the population grows when it is non-zero. Similarly a spacetime singularity can define an absolute element in cosmology. When the spacetime metric breaks down this ends the dynamics in a way which is independent of the details of the dynamics of the matter away from the singularity. Thus structural stability can be weakened to the condition of invariance under small perturbations which leave certain submanifolds fixed. This can lead to the appearance of relevant heteroclinic cycles although these are not structurally stable in the absolute sense. It explains the appearance of heteroclinic cycles in the models for lizards and for the big bang in a unified way. In a similar way, restricting the perturbations of a system of chemical reactions to those which leave a particular reaction irreversible can furnish the homoclinic orbit needed to model Liesegang rings.
I have now put a slightly extended version of this talk with references on my web page. On the same day there was a talk by Bernt Wennberg on models for the collective motion of birds and fish, concentrating mainly on kinetic models related to the Boltzmann equation. At the start of his talk he showed some of the well-known pictures of flocks of Starlings over Rome. In the evening I had my own pleasant experience with a flock of birds. A large number of Jackdaws (a couple of hundred) were flying around the central square in Karlstad and calling. For some reason I have become increasingly attached to the Jackdaw over the years. At this point, and without a good excuse, I want to tell a story about Jackdaws from the book ‘King Solomon’s Ring’ by Konrad Lorenz. It is a long time since I read the book and so I hope I do not distort the story too much. At one time Lorenz was living in a small village in Austria where he was regarded by the locals as a bit crazy. One of his interests was the social life of Jackdaws. There were Jackdaws living on the roofs of the houses and he climbed up to get close to them. In order to fit in better with his black subjects he decided to dress in black. The only ‘suitable’ black clothing he could find was a devil’s costume left over from a fancy dress party. No doubt the spectacle of him climbing over the roofs dressed as the devil perfected his reputation with the local inhabitants.
October 25, 2012
In the remaining one and a half days of the conference there were another fourteen talks and I will mention some aspects of their contents which attracted my attention. One recurring theme was that the encounter of a T cell receptor (TCR) with the peptide it recognizes bound to an MHC molelcule (pMHC) is often not just the encounter of one TCR with one pMHC but of multiple players. It can be shown by electron microscopy that the TCR tend to cluster on the surface of a T cell even before it has encountered antigen. This is done by attaching gold particles to the TCR so that they show up as black dots on the electron micrograph. It was shown in the talk of Hisse van Santen that a similar thing happens with the pMHC on the surface of antigen presenting cells. Judging from the discussion after the talk it seems that the explanation for this is that the pMHC, which are well known to be produced in the interior of the cell, are exported to the surface in groups. There also seems to be a widely held opinion that signalling through the T cell receptor is absolutely dependent on clustering of TCR. This makes life more complicated than it otherwise might have been. I learned at this conference that experiments on T cell signalling in vitro are often done by using tetramers, i.e. groups of four pMHC which are bound together covalently. In the talk of Wolfgang Schamel described experiments using tetramer binding. He said that this work was linked with some mathematical modelling, done by Thomas Höfer and others, but he did not want to take questions on that. My impression was that the model was an extension of the kinetic proofreading model. It has not yet been published and so I did not yet have an opportunity to look at it. Carmen Molina-París and Balbino Alarcón discussed cooperative effects in T cell receptor binding.
Michal Polonsky showed pictures of individual T cells trapped in small wells in a microfluidic device. When activated they wriggle very vigorously. These are the kind of pictures which could easily make you take a very anthropomorphic view of T cells. The aim of this work is to observe the differentiation, division and death of the cells over long periods (several days). If they were not trapped it would be extremely difficult to follow them under the microscope since they would be liable to run away. A break from the purely scientific talks was provided by a presentation of Dinah Singer about the systems biology programme at the National Cancer Institute in the US, a programme which she runs. Apart from concrete information about funding another aspect of this was the question of what might be learned about the potential for applying systems biology to immunology from existing applications of these ideas to cancer research. Dipankar Nandi talked about a phenomenon I had never heard of before and would never have expected – atrophy of the thymus as a consequence of certain diseases. Finally, I was on more familiar ground with the talk of Isabel Mérida about certain signalling pathways in T cell activation. The substance at the centre of her talk, diacylglycerol kinase, was not familiar to me but the context was. Right at the end of the conference there was a general discussion session planned. This session, which was led by Ed Palmer, ended up being very short. This was due to the (in itself positive) fact that the discussions after (and during) the individual talks had taken up more time than planned. The final discussion was interesting despite its brevity. The basic theme was: if mathematicians are collaborating with immunologists what can each side do to help the other in this process? Interesting points were brought up and we were all sent home with some things to think about.
October 22, 2012
At the moment I am attending a conference on systems biology of T cells in Baeza. Of the eleven talks today the first nine made no mention of mathematics – there was not a single equation. The tenth, by Zvi Grossmann, did show a couple. Thus the bias today was very much towards experimental immunology. It was interesting for me to be immersed in this atmosphere and I learned a lot of things. There are three things which stick in my mind particularly. The first is the fact, mentioned in the talk of Bruno Kyewski, that antigens mimicking all tissues of the body are presented by medullary epithelial cells in the thymus. This allows future T cells to learn about all self antigens. I asked him afterwards if this includes tissues which are in the immunologically privileged sites, usually poorly accessible to the immune system, like the central nervous system. He confirmed that this is the case. The second is the fact, which came up in the talk of Marisa Torio, that T cell precursors in the thymus have the potential to develop into almost any type of white blood cell. This means that the fate of a cell to become a T cell is in general not decided before it reaches the thymus, the answer to a question I had often asked myself. The third is the description in the talk of Alfred Singer of the way in which it is decided which of the surface molecules CD4 or CD8 a T cell carries. I had already watched a video by Singer on this subject on the NIH web page but one thing I was not aware of was the fact that by binding the protein Lck it is possible for CD4 and CD8 to interfere with T cell signalling. Lck is sequestered and hence is not available for use by the T cell receptor.
Grossmann’s talk was mainly concerned with rather abstract ideas about cell signalling and it was hard for me to get to grips with them. I had the impression that the right mathematical context for these things should be control theory. The last and only really mathematical talk of the day, by Rob de Boer, was a highlight for me and not only for me. At dinner the air was buzzing with conversations on the subject. The talk was on monitoring the dynamics of immune cells by labelling with deuterium and drawing conclusions about their lifetimes. I had heard a talk on a similar subject by de Boer before at a conference in Dresden and I wrote about it briefly in a previous post. I liked that earlier talk but I liked the talk today much more. This was probably less due to the difference in content as to the fact that for whatever reason I now appreciated the significance of this work much better. This is an example where a mathematical model can be used to obtain information about processes in immunology which it is difficult or impossible to obtain in any other way. It is not that the mathematics is complicated, just some explicitly solvable linear ODE. The impressive thing is the direct contact this work makes with real biological questions like ‘how long does a memory T cell live’. Analysing different experiments both using deuterium in human subjects and other more poisonous substances which can only be used in mice originally gave inconsistent answers for lifetimes. With hindsight this arose from the assumption in the models of just one population of cells with a definite death rate. Passing to a model with two classes of cells largely removed the discrepancy. There was another interesting aspect of this lecture and its reception which explains its prevalence at dinner. It has to do with communication between different fields, in this case mathematics and biology. There was a lot of confusion among the audience which was due not to the factual content of the work but to the way the results were described and to the choice of language in describing the results. I should remember for the future that it is not enough to get an interesting result in mathematical biology. It is also necessary to be very careful about formulating it in the right way so as to make its meaning transparent for biologists.