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Three Nobel Laureates in Medicine Advanced our Understanding of the Immune System

Current BrightFocus-Funded Researchers Build upon Their Pioneering Work, Studying the Role of the Immune System in Degenerative Diseases

October 7, 2011

This week, the 2011 Nobel Prize® in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three scientists for basic research that has “revolutionized our understanding of the immune system by discovering key principles for its activation,” opening up “new avenues for the development of prevention and therapy against infections, cancer, and inflammatory diseases,” said the Nobel Committee in an October 3 press release.

Sharing the 2011 prize are Nobel Laureates Bruce A. Beutler, M.D., of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California; Jules A. Hoffman, Ph.D., of the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Strasbourg, France; and the late Ralph Steinman, M.D., of the Rockefeller University in New York City, who died just three days before the Nobel Prize was announced.

The scientists' research revealed how the so-called innate and adaptive phases of the immune response are activated, providing novel insights into the mechanisms of disease. Thanks to the work of these scientists, BrightFocus-funded scientists around the world are studying the involvement of the immune system for all three of the diseases BrightFocus targets: Alzheimer's disease, macular degeneration, and glaucoma.

Hoffman and Beutler were recognized for their discoveries of receptor proteins, known as Toll-like receptors. These receptors can recognize that microorganisms or other foreign entities have invaded the body, and “sound the alarm” to activate the “innate” immune system—the first step in the body's immune response. Hoffman and colleagues found that fruit flies needed the Toll-like receptors to ward off microbial pathogens in bacterial and fungal infections. Beutler's group discovered that the same family of receptors is involved in mediating responses to bacterial lipopolysaccharide, the trigger for septic shock in mammals.

Steinman was honored for his discovery of a new type of cell, known as a dendritic cell, which is vital to another type of immune response. This “adaptive” immunity, as it is called, determines what has invaded the body in order to trigger an appropriate response. The dendritic cells are the gatekeepers in the adaptive system, determining when to activate a T-cell attack, by responding to the warning signals from the innate system.

The Nobel Laureates' work “has triggered an explosion of research in innate immunity,” said the Nobel Committee. New methods for preventing and treating disease have been developed, including improved vaccines against infections, and attempts to stimulate the immune system to attack tumors. Scientists understand more about why the immune system can attack our own tissues, opening the door for future treatments of inflammatory diseases.

BrightFocus-Funded Scientists Are Exploring Role of Immune System

In BrightFocus-funded Alzheimer's disease research, Paramita Chakrabarty, Ph.D., of the University of Florida-Gainesville, is examining the potential to engineer soluble Toll-like receptors to reduce brain inflammation and decrease disease symptoms. Kathryn Moore, Ph.D., of New York University, recently completed a BrightFocus grant, studying the role of the innate immune response in the development of Alzheimer's disease.

In glaucoma research, Paul A. Knepper, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Illinois at Chicago, has found that activation of the innate immune system triggers an inflammatory cascade that leads to primary open-angle glaucoma. Research could lead to treatments that target the underlying cause of the disease, rather than just managing symptoms.

Jinbo Liu, M.D., of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio, is examining the mechanisms that underlie an immune attack on the retina. This information could lead to treatments not currently available for the debilitating disease of age-related macular degeneration.

These are just a few of the BrightFocus-funded scientists examining the role of the immune system in degenerative diseases. For more information on the research BrightFocus has funded, visit http://www.brightfocus.org/research/grants/.

Nobel Laureate information adapted from the press release of the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.

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Disclaimer: The information provided in this section is a public service of the BrightFocus Foundation, and should not in any way substitute for the advice of a qualified healthcare professional, and is not intended to constitute medical advice. Although we take efforts to keep the medical information on our website updated, we cannot guarantee that the information on our website reflects the most up-to-date research. Please consult your physician for personalized medical advice; all medications and supplements should only be taken under medical supervision. BrightFocus Foundation does not endorse any medical product or therapy.

Some of the content in this section is adapted from other sources, which are clearly identified within each individual item of information.

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