Understanding Acquired Immunity And What It Means For Vaccines

Mar 21, 2018

When you get a cold, or the flu, or other viral illnesses, your immune system adapts to keep you from getting that particular strain of illness again. So, too, with vaccines, which essentially train your body to fight off infection from the virus or bacterium they’re designed to protect you from.

Except your immune system doesn’t always cooperate. Some vaccines need booster shots over time, and some people - especially the elderly - are susceptible to diseases they would not have caught at another time in their life. So what’s going on here?

"There's still a lot we don't understand about this and a lot of this is still kind of important in terms of thinking about vaccinology."

It’s a question that researcher Jack Gorski is trying to answer in his work at the Blood Center of Wisconsin.

"There's still a lot we don't understand about this and a lot of this is still kind of important in terms of thinking about vaccinology," Gorski explains. 

He and Blood Center chief storyteller Ben Merens joined Lake Effect's Mitch Teich in the studio recently, and Gorski gave a primer on how the immune system works. 

He explains, “There’s two levels of immunity... There’s a level of immunity that we’re born with and it’s called, ‘innate immunity.’ These are genes that we’ve been carrying since we were amoebas that tell us: this is bacteria, either eat it or stay away from it. So we have these genes and what they’re doing is they’re recognizing something about bacteria or viruses that’s not natural and something they can’t change about themselves.”

Gorski continues, “Then we have this other level of immunity [called ‘acquired immunity’]… where on the fly, you’re gonna look ahead and try to guess what’s coming down the pike and be ready for it.”