Another conference on biological oscillators at EMBL in Heidelberg

I recently attended a conference at EMBL in Heidelberg and I very much enjoyed experiencing a live conference for the first time in a couple of years. I heard similar sentiments expressed by many of the other participants at the meeting. This conference at EMBL was a sequel to one which I previously wrote about here. The present event was in hybrid form with many of the speakers remote. There were nevertheless more than a hundred people attending on site. The conference started with a presymposium. This was intended to teach some mathematics to biologists. I attended it since I saw it as an opportunity to learn more about what kind of mathematics is really of interest to biologists. Among the main themes discussed were the relationships between positive feedback and multistability and between negative feedback and oscillations. First there was a one-hour talk by Hanspeter Herzel. Then there was a practical part where we were supposed to play with a computer programme. I had downloaded the necessary programmes (R and RStudio) as recommended but this part of the event was a failure for me. I am simply lacking in basic computer competence. It was not explained to us how to begin using the programme and I was not able to supply this missing information on my own. The first part, the lecture, was more interesting for me. The speaker mentioned a paper which he wrote with others about circadian oscillations in the number of lymphocytes in different tissues (D. Druzd et al., Immunity 46, 120). I had previously wondered about the possible roles of oscillations in immunology but I never thought of that direction. I spoke to Herzel about this in a coffee break. This demonstrates a huge advantage of live versus online conferences. I am sure that the information he and I exchanged over coffee would never have been communicated if the conference had been only online. There is a standard picture in immunology in which antigen is being continuously transported to lymph nodes, where it can activate lymphocytes. A key point of the paper is that this does not happen at a constant rate. Instead the process is highly oscillatory. Lymphocytes reach their highest level in the lymph nodes mainly at the beginning of the active phase  (i.e. the beginning of the dark phase in the mice in which these observations were carried out). This means that the effectiveness of a vaccination or another chemical intervention may depend strongly on the time at which it is administered. Herzel told me about an example where this has been seen in practise in cancer immunotherapy. I decided that I wanted to investigate this more closely. Before I could do that I heard the talk of Francis Levi, which was exactly on this topic. Returning to the paper quoted above, according to Herzel the mathematical content was very elementary, using a linear model. I am happy that simple mathematical models and ideas can lead to useful biological insights. What I do not find so good is that the information on the mathematics presented in the paper is so minimal, even in the supplementary material. There is one aspect of this story which is unclear to me. It is important for the functioning of the immune system that a given T cell visits many lymph nodes in a day. Thus the delays to the entrance or exit from lymph nodes which are supposed to implement the rhythm must act in some kind of averaged sense.

I also had a chance to talk to Levi over coffee and get some additional insights about some aspects of his lecture. He has been working on chronotherapy in oncology for many years. This means the idea that the effectiveness of a cancer therapy can be very dependent on the time of day it is administered. He has applied these ideas in practise but the ideas have not gained wide acceptance in the community of oncologists. There is a chance that this may change soon due to the appearance of two papers on this subject in the prestigious journal ‘The Lancet Oncology’ in November 2021. One of the papers (22, 1648) is by Levi, the other (22, 1777) by Qian et al.

Now let me mention a couple of the other contributions I liked best. On Monday there was a (remote) talk by Albert Goldbeter on the coupling between the cell cycle and the circadian clock. Here, as elsewhere in this conference, entrainment was a central theme. There was a discussion of the role of multiple limit cycles in these models. There was also a (remote) talk by Jim Ferrell. His subject was cataloguing certain aspects of an organism called the mouse lemur. The idea was to have a list of cell types and hormones and to know which cell types produce and are affected by which hormones. There is a preprint on this subject on BioRxiv. One feature of these primates which I found striking is the following. They are much fatter in winter than in summer and this is related to a huge difference in thyroid hormones. If I remember correctly it is a factor of ten. For comparison, in humans thyroid hormones also vary with the time of year but only on the scale of a couple of per cent. In a talk by Susan Golden (live) on the Kai system in cyanobacteria I was able to experience one of the pioneers in that field.

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