(July 23, 1998) -- Miroslav Holub, who died in Prague on July 14 at the age of 74, was celebrated as one of the major poets to emerge after World World II from Eastern Europe but it is in an entirely different regard-the nude mouse-that Holub will be remembered in medicine.
Holub was born in the town of Pilsen in 1923, studied medicine at Charles University in Prague, earning his M.D. in 1953 and adding a Ph.D. in 1958. He worked as an immunologist at the Microbiological Institute of the Czechoslovak Academy of Science. It was there that he bred a strain of laboratory mice that were hairless. They were called "nude mice."
Nude mice have two copies of the gene "nu" (for nude). They are not only hairless (and so are easy to spot in the lab) but, more importantly, they lack a thymus, the fleshy gland high up in the chest. Because nude mice have no thymus, they lack T cells. T cells are lymphocyes (white blood cells) that depend on the thymus for their development. (There are two main types of lymphocytes: B cells that mature primarily in the bone marrow and T cells that need the thymus to mature). Without the thymus, there can be no T cells.
It is the inherited (genetic) lack of T cells that makes the nude mouse an ideal research tool for scientists studying the immune system.
Although after the Prague spring of 1968, any mention of Holub's poetry was banned, he continued working as an immunologist, writing more than 150 scientific papers and a monograph titled, "Immunology of Nude Mice."
The poet Holub did not stop writing. He addressed an underground audience. The poet Holub wrote of "each blood cell carrying four molecules of hope" while Dr. Holub continued his research on nude mice.
Holub's nude mice are valuable to men (and women). Without these mice, there is a great deal that we would not understand about the human immune system, leukemia, solid tumors, AIDS and other forms of immune deficiency.
The worlds of poetry and medicine will miss Miroslav Holub (1923-1998).