Everybody learns the basics in school: When an infection enters the body, white blood cells attack and kill it.
“Our immune system has the amazing ability to fight off infections in such a fashion that the response is absolutely specific to that infection,” said Mark Jutila, head of Montana State University’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the College of Agriculture and College of Letters and Science. “And if we’re ever exposed to that same virus again, we don’t get sick.”
It’s basic biology, but for Jutila those facts prompted a career full of questions that have led him to become a world-renowned researcher whose work has increased our understanding of how the immune system works and how we can help it work better.
Jutila will speak on the journey of a white blood cell — and his own journey as an immunologist — when he presents the next installment of the Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series on Tuesday, Feb. 16.
A Bozeman native, Jutila graduated from MSU in 1982 with a degree in microbiology. It was his experience working as an undergraduate in the lab with noted professor Jim Cutler that cemented his decision to become a researcher himself.
“My interest in research was fostered at that time,” he said. “That really started me on my path in research in developing an interest and passion for the study of the immune system.”
He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from Washington State University, where he transferred into the veterinary program and formally began studying immunology and how it related to inflammation.
Afterward, he accepted a fellowship at Stanford University in pathology, where he became involved in research that detailed the mechanics of how immune cells move through the body and into the tissues, a process called leukocyte trafficking.
He returned to MSU as a professor in 1989, where his research into both human and animal immunology has brought in tens of millions of dollars in grant funding from agencies like the American Cancer Society, the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In particular, Jutila is known for his research into gamma-delta T-cells, a rarer type of the already infrequent leukocytes that play a role in both the body’s adaptive immune response and its innate immunity.
“We’re born with immune cells with receptors specific to an almost endless array of pathogens — before we’re even exposed to them,” he said.
His research into the body’s inflammatory response has fed into the development of clinical treatments for disorders like psoriasis or inflammations of the gut and nervous system that target the cells causing the inflammation and shut them down at the molecular level. Some of his own work has led to technologies that have been investigated as potential drug candidates.
The thrust of his research now is into adjuvants, which are drugs or compounds that enhance immune responses, in part by increasing the trafficking of immune cells.
“We’re really interested now in identifying approaches to enhance the function of the cells once they’re in the tissue, really zeroing in on what that cell is doing in the tissue at the site of infection,” Jutila said.
Vaccines are, by far, the best approach, he said, but: “It’s absolutely specific to one bug, and we’ve got a lot of bugs. This adjuvant approach enhances the activity of our immune cells and tissues that will impact a broad spectrum of infectious agents.”
Jutila’s research has impacts beyond the laboratory. In the mid-1990s, he and his father, John Jutila — himself an MSU administrator and vice president of research throughout the 1980s — helped found Montana Immunotech, the company that would later be known as Ligocyte Pharmaceuticals. Known for its work on a norovirus vaccine, Ligocyte was sold to the Japanese pharmaceutical company Takeda in 2012 for $60 million.
“It has been fun to translate what we did in the lab into the private sector,” he said. “Plus it was nice that a number of our students had a place locally for internships and jobs.”
Despite being primarily hired for his research skills, Jutila teaches classes at various levels at MSU and with the WWAMI regional medical training program, where he teaches immunology.
“I really sought out the teaching responsibilities,” he said. “I’ve had 60-plus undergraduate students in my lab over the years, and we translated that to the classroom setting.”
In addition to Jutila’s teaching and research, Nicol Rae, dean of MSU’s College of Letters and Science, praised Jutila’s willingness to take on administrative and leadership roles, serving as interim head of the microbiology department and now as head of the newly merged Department of Microbiology and Immunology.
“He's an outstanding faculty member both as teacher, outstanding research scientist and administrative leader, and he's highly respected around the university,” Rae said. “He's certainly very worthy of the honor of being a provost's distinguished lecturer.”
Jutila is a member of numerous panels, societies and associations, and he has earned multiple MSU merit awards, including the Cox Award for Creative Scholarship and Teaching in 2001. Among other honors, he was also named Distinguished Veterinary Immunologist of the Year in 2006 by the American Association of Veterinary Immunologists. He has authored more than 135 papers and book chapters.
Jutila’s Feb. 16 lecture will be held at the Museum of the Rockies at 7 p.m. The talk is free and open to the public and will be followed by a reception.
The Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series recognizes MSU faculty for their scholarship and creativity. Presenters reflect on the inspirations for their work in lectures suited for professionals and lay people alike.
Contact: Mark Jutila, (406) 994-4540 or firstname.lastname@example.org