Nobel prize for medicine awarded for immune system work

Bruce Beutler, Jules Hoffmann and Ralph Steinman won the 2011 Nobel prize for medicine or physiology for increasing understanding of the immune system, the prize-awarding institute said on Monday.

Beutler and French biologist Hoffmann, who studied the first stages of immune responses to attack, shared the $1.5-million award with Canadian-born Ralph Steinman, working in the United States, who discovery of dendritic cells key to understanding the later stages.

“This year’s Nobel Laureates have revolutionised our understanding of the immune system by discovering key principles for its facilitation,” Sweden’s Karolinska Institute said in a statement.

Beutler (53) is based at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. Luxembourg-born Hoffmann (70) conducted much of his work in Strasbourg and Steinman (68) from Rockefeller University in New York.

Lars Klareskog, who chairs the prize-giving Nobel Assembly, told Reuters: “I am very excited about what these discoveries mean. I think that we will have new, better vaccines against microbes and that is very much needed now with the increased resistance against antibiotics.

“I also expect that there will be some development in the area of attacking cancers from the self-immune system. There are some promising things there.”

Annika Scheynius, a professor of clinical allergy research and a member of the panel, said: “We are definitely sure that these discoveries will lead to health improvement … They can improve the health of patients with cancer, inflammatory diseases, auto-immune diseases, asthma.”

Self defence
The work of the three scientists has been pivotal to the development of improved types of vaccines against infectious diseases and novel approaches to fighting cancer. The research has helped lay the foundations for a new wave of “therapeutic vaccines” that stimulate the immune system to attack tumours.

Better understanding of the complexities of the immune system has also given clues for treating inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, where the components of the self-defence system end up attacking the body’s own tissues.

The award citation noted that the world’s scientists had long been searching for the “gatekeepers” of the immune response by which man and other animals defend themselves against attack by bacteria and other micro-organisms.

Beutler and Hoffmann discovered receptor proteins that can recognise attacking microorganisms and which activate “innate immunity”, the first step in the body’s immune response.

“Ralph Steinman discovered the dendritic cells of the immune system and their unique capacity to activate and regulate adaptive immunity, the later stage of the immune response during which microorganisms are cleared from the body,” it added.

Hoffmann’s pioneering research was actually conducted on fruit flies, highlighting how key elements of modern human biology have been conserved through evolution.

The immune system exists primarily to protect against infections but it can also protect against some cancers by targeting rogue cells before they proliferate.

Sometimes, however, the immune system goes into overdrive and attacks healthy tissue, leading to autoimmune inflammatory diseases, such as type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis, as well as rheumatoid arthritis. The effect is often compared to “friendly fire”, when troops hit their own comrades in combat.

Medicine is traditionally the first of the Nobel prizes awarded each year. Prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace were first awarded in 1901 accordance with the will of dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel.

Fever pitch
The names of the nominees for the Nobel prizes are kept secret by the various committees, but like every year speculation has reached fever pitch about who will be awarded in the fields of medicine, physics, chemistry, economics, literature and peace.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awards the peace prize, has confirmed a record 241 nominations for 2011, after honouring jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo last year.

Nobel watchers say that in a year so dominated by the Arab Spring uprising, which led to the overthrow of autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and rattled the ones in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, an activist from that movement might get the call on October 7.

“The Arab Spring is the favourite topic this year,” said Kristian Berg Harpviken, the head of the Peace Research Institute of Oslo.

If an actor in the Arab Spring uprising is honoured, Harpviken said his top pick would be Israa Abdel Fattah of Egypt and the April 6 Youth Movement that she co-founded with Ahmed Maher in 2008.

The movement, which began on Facebook, “played a key role in maintaining the direction and non-violent character of the uprisings in Egypt”, he said.

Also on Harpviken’s shortlist was Google executive Wael Ghonim, “a principled non-violence activist” who was a central inspiration to the protests on Tahrir Square.

Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” could also inspire this year’s award, in which case Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, who chronicled the revolution in her country, figures among the favourites.

Other names circulating are Afghan human rights activist Sima Samar, Russian human rights organisation Memorial, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, Germany’s ex-chanceller Helmut Kohl and the European Union.

Syrian poet seen as favourite
For the literature prize, which last year went to Peruvian-Spanish author Mario Vargas Llosa, literary circles suggest the situation in the Middle East could also play a role in the Swedish Academy’s choice, with Syrian poet Adonis tipped as a favourite.

In June, Adonis, whose real name is Ali Ahmed Said and who lives in France, published an open letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a Lebanese newspaper urging him to end the bloody repression.

Online betting site Ladbrokes tipped Adonis as the favourite on September 30, just ahead of Swedish poet Tomas Transtroemer.

Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Somalia’s Nuruddin Farah, Hungary’s Peter Nadas, Korean poet Ko Un, Japan’s Haruki Murakami, India’s Vijaydan Detha and Australia’s Les Murray also figure among the favourites for this year’s literature prize, which will most probably be announced on October 6 but could come on any Thursday in October.

The field is meanwhile seen as wide open for the prizes for medicine, physics and chemistry, to be announced on October 3, 4 and 5, although they have in the post-war period been dominated by American researchers.

The economics prize, which will wrap up the season on October 10, is meanwhile not expected to be heavily coloured by the debt crises currently raging in Europe and the United States.

Prize committee chairperson Per Krusell pointed out that there “tends to be a long lag from the time the research is done until it is awarded,” and observers said research in the fields of political economics, economic growth or consumption were more likely to receive the coveted nod.

The peace prize will be handed out in Oslo on December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.

Other Nobel laureates will pick up their prizes in Stockholm on the same day. – AFP, Reuters

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