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Trio wins Nobel Medicine Prize for immune system research

04 october 2011, 14:00
Three scientists shared the Nobel Medicine Prize Monday for ground-breaking work on the immune system which the jury said opened up a new front for attacking cancer and other diseases, AFP reports.

The winners are Bruce Beutler of the United States, Luxembourg-born Jules Hoffmann, who is a naturalised French citizen, and Ralph Steinman of Canada.

"This year's Nobel laureates have revolutionised our understanding of the immune system by discovering key principles for its activation," the jury said in a statement.

The three were lauded for their work on the body's complex defence system in which signalling molecules unleash antibodies and killer cells to respond to invading microbes.

Understanding this throws open the door to new drugs and also tackling immune disorders, such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease, in which the body mysteriously attacks itself.

"Their work has opened up new avenues for the development of prevention and therapy against infections, cancer and inflammatory diseases," the jury said.

"They have made possible the development of new methods for preventing and treating disease, for instance with improved vaccines against infections and in attempts to stimulate the immune system to attack tumours."

It added: "These discoveries will also help us to understand why the immune system can attack our own tissues, thus providing clues for novel treatment of inflammatory diseases."

The Nobel jury said it had been unable to immediately contact any of the three laureates to inform them they had won.

Beutler, 55, and Hoffmann, 70, share one half of the 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.48 million, 1.08 million euros) prize.

They discovered receptor proteins that activate the first step in the body's immune system.

Known as the innate response, it acts like a blunt instrument, seeking to swiftly block an assault through inflammation.

Hoffman's work in 1996, at a research laboratory in Strasbourg, on how fruit flies combat infections, showed that a gene called Toll, known to be involved in embryonal development, helped sense harmful microorganisms and was needed to defend against them.

Beutler, meanwhile, expanded on that discovery in 1998 when he at the University of Texas discovered that a Toll-like receptor called LPS also acted in the same way in mice, thus proving that mammals and fruitflies shared a common immune pathway.

Steinman, 68, won the other half of the prize for work on the second, slower line of defence, known as the adaptive response.

In 1973, he discovered a new type of cell, the dendritic cell, and demonstrated its role in unleashing T cells -- the "heavy artillery" of the immune system.

T cells are part of an immunological memory, enabling a faster and powerful mobilisation of defenses the next time the same microorganism attacks.

Steinman, who also won the 2007 Lasker Prize for his work, showed that the body's immune system was able to attack harmful microorganisms while staying clear of the body's own molecules.

Monday's award was the 12th Nobel Medicine Prize to honour research on the immune system, including the very first prize in 1901 to Emil von Behring.

The trio will receive their prize at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.

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