For the past 41 years, Jiri Mestecky, M.D., Ph.D., has worked at UAB, investigating the structure, biosynthesis and function of human and animal immunoglobulin A and immune responses.
Mestecky was among the first scientists to develop reliable assays for the measurement of HIV immune responses, to investigate correlates of HIV transmission and to participate in the effort to develop vaccines to prevent the infection.
Recently Mestecky was awarded the Czech Mind award, which is the highest public recognition for outstanding scientific research given annually by the Czech Republic to native scientists for outstanding scientific achievements abroad.
Here Mestecky shared his thoughts on the award and other subjects with the UAB Reporter.
Q. Describe what it means to be honored by your native country.
A. The Czech Mind award was established six years ago to recognize seminal contributions made by Czech scientists working in the Czech Republic, as well as scientists of Czech origin who were successful in their work outside of the Czech Republic. Naturally, I was very pleased that this year the honor went to our work here at UAB.
Q. You have never broken ties with your former colleagues in the Czech Republic. How have their contributions helped your scientific research?
A. This question requires a brief explanation. I left then-Czechoslovakia in 1967 and returned for the first time 11 years later in April 1978, on strictly a private visit. Because of the political situation in Czechoslovakia after the occupation by the Russians in 1968, I could not work directly with investigators from the Czech science institutions; nevertheless, a few of them were allowed to come to the United States for one- or two-year visits. Thanks to then-chair of microbiology Claude Bennett, I had the opportunity to work with a few of them, particularly Dr. Jiri Zikan, on the structure of mucosal antibodies.
The collaboration with Dr. Zikan was particularly fruitful and resulted in the publication of a number of research articles in excellent scientific journals. The situation changed substantially in 1989 during the so-called “Velvet Revolution,” when scientific contacts among Eastern and Western investigators were promoted by the Czech government.
Consequently, from that time on, I have participated in a number of national and international symposia organized by Czech scientists and have developed closer research ties, particularly with members of the department of immunology and gnotobiology at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague.
Q. Of what findings or discoveries are you most proud or excited to have been a part?
A. Although I have published more than 500 papers with my colleagues, those that really advanced our understanding of mucosal immunology can be counted on the fingers of two hands. In the early 1970s, our work on the discovery, characterization and identification of a novel component in mucosal antibodies and the structure of the entire molecule, which changed our view of the structure and function of secretory antibodies, was exciting.
With respect to our work on HIV, we are puzzled by the lack of vigorous immune responses to HIV, particularly in the mucosal compartment, as manifested by the absence of low levels of specific antibodies to HIV in secretions of mucosal tissues, which are the major portals of entry of HIV in the entire world.
Q. When you discover something never seen or found before, what range of emotions do you have?
A. Excitement. I fondly recall a few interesting days and evenings when a sudden finding paved the research way for many subsequent years. For example, the demonstration for the presence of antibodies in tears, saliva and milk of a lactating mother to an ingested oral bacterium with subsequent demonstration of antibody-secreting cells in the peripheral blood of such individuals provided an impetus for current studies performed in many laboratories attempting to transform vaccines from injections to pills.
Q. You travel the world lecturing on mucosal immunity and talking about your work in the departments of Microbiology and Medicine. What are obstacles researchers face today and what must be done to overcome them?
A. By far, the greatest challenge for current investigators in the field of biomedicine is the level of funding. We must realize that we spend most of our time applying for research funds; in the current situation, one of 10 grants is funded. Therefore, most of our time is spent writing grants and re-applying repeatedly to secure funding for our research. This is an exhausting and frequently frustrating effort, which troubles all of us working in the biomedical field within the United States. After many years of satisfactory funding, almost all of us, not only at UAB but the entire United States, are struggling to secure reasonable funds for younger colleagues to maintain previous publication activities.