Interview with Elsevier Author, Dr. Matthew Helbert
Matthew Helbert, MB, ChB, PhD, FRCP, FRCPath, who retired in 2015, was Consultant Immunologist in the Department of Immunology at Manchester Royal Infirmary, Manchester, UK. He is the author of Immunology for Medical Students, 3rd Edition.
What made you want to study immunology?
I was a junior doctor working in Liverpool in the early 1980s when I first got interested in Immunology. In rapid succession, I looked after three different female patients:
- The first was a woman having palliative chemotherapy for lymphoma who had been ill for a few years. On several occasions, her lymphoma had shown signs of improving and she came off here treatment. But on each occasion, the tumour returned after several months.
- The second young woman had a very different experience. In 1983 she developed a series of infections, one after the other. Her health rapidly deteriorated. She had a blood test for HIV (it wasn’t called that back then) which came back positive. Within a few more months she was dead.
- The third woman was a teenager who had been a champion roller skater. She developed severe chill blains on her fingers and these were eventually diagnosed as being due to Systemic Lupus Eythematosus. Within a few weeks, she suffered ischaemic damage to her spine and became paraplegic.
It was our lack of knowledge about these diseases that stimulated my interest in Immunology. Seeing how the increased understanding of immunology has led to better tests and treatments has been has been fantastic journey for me. If any of these three women had first got ill just twenty years later, the improvements in clinical immunology would mean they would be alive and well today.
How has immunology changed over the years?
In the last twenty years, immunology has gone from a minority topic to a major clinical discipline. Monoclonal antibodies have moved from obscurity to being important parts of the treatment of diverse illnesses, from cancer to arthritis to blindness. The prices of these drugs is a regular topic on news programmes.
What is your professional background?
I did a PhD whilst I was a junior doctor and finally became board certified in Immunology in 1997. I worked at St Barts in London before moving to Manchester to be a Consultant Immunologist in the Department of Immunology at Manchester Royal Infirmary. I was responsible for running a diagnostic laboratory and looking after patients with immune deficiency, autoimmunity and allergy.
What advice would you offer medical students?
I’ve taught a lot of medical students over the years. I apologise for the confusing names of cells and molecules used in Immunology! Two tips I’d offer students:
- Make sure you have a rock solid outline of immunology, before going in to all the details. Chapter 1 and 2 in my book provide this – read them first.
- Try and link the immunology facts to clinical experiences. If you don’t do this, Immunology can be harder to remember and understand.
One of my main interests is bee keeping. How our bodies react to bee stings can tell us a lot about the immune system, as you will read in chapter 27. And somewhere, in the depths of my book, is a picture of me in my bee suit!