Show 1170: What Makes Your Immune System an Elegant Defense?


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Have you ever wondered how your immune system manages to ward off infections? This “elegant defense” is sometimes described as though it were an army fending off all invaders, but that metaphor can be misleading. Perhaps we’d do better to think of immune system cells as a peacekeeping force. Maybe they act as bouncers for our ongoing, internal Festival of Life–only kicking out the troublemakers.

Two Immune Systems:

We may talk about “the immune system,” but in fact each of us relies on two interlocking immune systems: innate and adaptive. How are they different? How do they work together to maintain harmony?

Why Shouldn’t You Boost Your Immune System?

Knowledgeable experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, are skeptical of claims that a supplement could help boost the immune system. In the first place, most people’s immune systems probably don’t need to be boosted. In the second place, sending it into overdrive could be dangerous and might lead to autoimmune diseases.

What Role Does the Immune System Play in Cancer?

Most of us probably carry around mutations in some cells, at least part of the time. These rarely result in cancer, because immune cells are able to detect and manage them. But when a tumor is able to evade them or even turn them into allies, the results can be deadly. How do immunotherapies work to overcome cancers that have not responded to more conventional treatments?

Jason’s Story:

Matt Richtel’s fascinating book, An Elegant Defense, follows the stories of four different people whose experience can help illuminate what the immune system does and what happens when it doesn’t do its job. The heart of the story revolves around Jason Greenstein, Matt’s childhood friend. His Hodgkin lymphoma did not respond to the usual treatments. His doctors ended up turning to a new type of medicine, an immunotherapy called nivolumab. How does it work?

This Week’s Guest:

Matt Richtel is a reporter at the New York Times. He won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting with a series of articles he expanded into his first nonfiction book. It was a New York Times bestseller, A Deadly Wandering.

Matt Richtel’s latest book is An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System: A Tale in Four Lives.

His website is

The photograph of Matt Richtel is by Simona Deac.

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