Issue date: 15 June 2004

ISSUE DATE: 15/06/04

What is it that triggers our body immune systems to safeguard against harmful bacteria, viruses, food particles and proteins? How does the body’s immune system detect what is safe and what is dangerous? Can patterns in human immunity triggers be emulated in computer systems to help combat costly and damaging viruses?

These are questions that will be investigated by a team of researchers from the Centre for Research in Biomedicine at the University of the West of England, Bristol in a project entitled ‘Danger Theory: the missing link between artificial immune systems and intrusion detection.’ Working in partnership with researchers from the University of Nottingham and University College London, the UWE team will be lead by Dr Julie McLeod.

Dr McLeod said, “We had to work hard to win the EPSRC funding of £658,000 for this project. Only 2% of the 600 proposals submitted were successful so this is something of a coup for the team. We believe that what made the bid stand out was the interdisciplinary nature of the work which cross fertilizes expertise across two generally unconnected areas of biomedicine and computer analysis.”

The project will investigate what the researchers term ‘danger theory.’ Dr McLeod explains:

“The central challenge with computer security is determining the difference between normal and potentially harmful activity. This is something that the body’s immune system does all the time – more often than not successfully. The basic idea behind the immune systems ability to protect us from foreign agents eg bacteria, but not react against our own body’s components, talks about ‘foreign’ versus ‘non-foreign’. Therefore a bacteria is ‘foreign’ to the body and the immune system reacts and eliminates it.

“However this does not appear to address all the types of bombardment which we put our bodies through eg food digested in the gut – this is ‘foreign’ but we don’t want to react against it! So another theory has been proposed called the ‘danger theory’. In this case the immune system would only react against something which posed a danger to the body. It is this concept that we will be investigating in the EPSRC project. We will study how the immune system detects ‘danger’ and how it responds to the myriad differing signals the body sees.”

The results from these immunological studies will inform the computer scientists at Nottingham and UCL working on Artificial Immune Systems. These systems intend to mirror aspects of the body’s immune system in order to generate defence mechanisms for computers. This exciting interdisciplinary project should help scale up computer security to real-world requirements.

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