The annual awards honor scientists who have made outstanding contributions to biomedical research in fields that profoundly affect global health. This year, the honorees stood out for their advances in tropical and neglected diseases, and immunology.
Unanue, one of four researchers honored at a ceremony in Paris, was recognized for his work to understand how the immune system identifies foreign protein fragments, or antigens — a first step in mounting an immune response. That work has paved the way for research into therapies for autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, which are caused by misdirected immune responses.
“I am very honored to receive this award and this recognition,” said Unanue, the Paul and Ellen Lacy Professor of Pathology and Immunology. “I have been fortunate throughout my career to work with and among extremely dedicated researchers whose ultimate goal has been to understand and advance science. I am grateful that support for basic research exists and am encouraged by the promise of innovation still to come.”
Emil Unanue, MD, is one of four scientists to receive a 2015 Sanofi-Pasteur Institut Award. He was honored for his invaluable contributions to the field of immunology.
During Unanue’s tenure as head of the university’sDepartment of Pathology and Immunology from 1985-2006, the immunology program became one of the most productive centers in the world for immunological research.
He is recognized internationally as a leader in research to decipher how the immune system recognizes foreign antigens and how immune system’s T cells respond. These cells are important components of the body’s response to infectious diseases. When misdirected against the body’s own tissues, they can make major harmful contributions that lead to autoimmune conditions.
In the 1980s, Unanue’s research group uncovered a critical component of how T cells recognize foreign invaders. Scientists previously had speculated that the cells were recognizing the shapes of intact pathogens, but Unanue showed that they were identifying parts of pathogens during their interactions with another group of immune cells, the antigen-presenting cells.
These cells pick up antigens and degrade them to fragments or peptides. Unanue and Paul Allen, PhD, the Robert L. Kroc Professor of Pathology and Immunology, discovered that antigen-presenting cells bind these peptides to a special group of molecules known as the major histocompatibility complex.