Star Trek got a lot right. Not just the communicators that predicted cell phones and the pads that preceded tablets, but also some of the social considerations. The need for a counselor on the ship recognized the crisis in mental health care that is an ongoing problem in our society and normalized seeing a counselor. And, of course, Star Trek was doing diversity, equity, and inclusion before we even knew what it was. I’ve been watching since The Original Series, and the idea that we could be traipsing around the stars in our pajamas was inspiring.
But with all the ideals and science that were inspiring, the immunology was often cringe-worthy.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation season 7, episode 19 that was entitled “Genesis,” Dr. Crusher injects Lt. Barclay with a synthetic T cell to activate a dormant gene to fight off a virus. At the time in 1992, I rolled my eyes so much they hurt. What was a “synthetic T cell”? And even if there was such a thing, T cells don’t activate dormant genes. But then years later there were these things called Chimeric Ag Receptor T cells that were injected in patients and I guess you could call them synthetic; they at least had synthetic specificities (1). And then recently we found out that Abs against endogenous retroviruses promote immunotherapy (2). So maybe activating a “dormant gene” is not such a ridiculous thing for a T cell to be doing.
Now I feel I need to pause here and stress that I am not so much of a nerd that I knew all that episode information without looking it up. Truly. I mean, sure I know James T. Kirk’s middle name, that he grew up in Iowa and only works in space, and I can name all the captains of the Enterprise, but it’s not like I have an encyclopedic knowledge of the episodes. So, totally not a nerd. I needed to clarify that.
Anyway, much earlier in the series, season 2, episode 7 entitled “Unnatural Selection” had Dr. Pulaski visit Darwin Station, where scientists were engineering children with enhanced immune systems. Their immune systems did not wait to be activated by invaders; they actively sought out threats and attacked them before they even reached the host. I remember thinking, even with my still-maturing knowledge of immunology at the time, that’s not how immunology works. It got even worse when this aggressive immunity became infectious in the episode and made people who had been exposed to the aggressively immune kids age at accelerated rates. Ridiculous, I thought. There’s no basis for any of that. Immunity is all about protecting the host, not going to fight wars that aren’t necessary. That’s America’s job.
But suddenly, maybe it is not science fiction anymore. In the recent paper by Kedl et al. (3) in ImmunoHorizons, the authors describe evidence for aerosol transfer of humoral immunity. The authors started by analyzing face masks for the expiration of Abs specific for SARS-CoV-2. They found IgG and IgA isolated from masks that correlated with those isotypes found in saliva. That’s expected, but could those Abs go on a trek? The authors then analyzed COVID-negative children who had no anti-nucleocapsid Abs, using samples from a time before the vaccines had been approved for children. They found that nasal swabs of kids in homes with vaccinated family members had detectable anti-COVID in nasal swabs, whereas kids with unvaccinated family did not. This was confirmed in further analysis that found a significant association between parental IgG titers and children’s nasal IgG titers, with a similar trend in IgA. This might make sense if IgG monomers “fly” better than IgA “dimers.” Although the study could not be further corroborated with additional analyses because children started getting vaccines, it was a provocative finding that suggests we might have a shared immunity with those closest to us.
One could propose some initial simple studies in mice, or ferrets if sneezing is important, to explore this concept, vaccinating a strain that has one Ab allotype and cohousing with animals carrying a different allotype or even an Ig-deficient strain. This might provide a platform for testing the tenets of transfer, as well as the biological consequences of having your friends’ Abs in your nose. In fact, you can imagine that the new Pharmaceutical Division of Capital One tries to market this observation with the slogan: “Whose allotype is in your nose?” Home testing kits would surely follow. June would say, “Ward, the Beaver came home with someone else’s antibodies in his nose again.”
Once again, maybe Star Trek was right. Sort of. I wouldn’t think a shared immunity would be aggressive. It is only through war-colored glasses that socialized immunity is seen as aggression. I envision shared immunity as beneficent, a result of an evolutionary advantage to sharing protection from pathogens with those closest to you. There is a balance here, though. Pathogens are transmitted through the nose, as well as this putative shared immunity, so you might want to screen your loved one before you ask them to sneeze on you.
But if Star Trek was right about that, I just have one thing to say: “Scotty, one to beam up.”