The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine goes to Bruce Beutler at the Scripps Research Institute in California, Jules Hoffmann at the French National Center for Scientific Research and Ralph Steinman at Rockefeller University in New York City. Beutler and Hoffman helped to elucidate innate immunity. That’s the non-specific array of initial responses by the body’s immune system that can recognize invading microorganisms as being foreign and try to destroy them.
Steinman investigated dendritic cells, and their key role in what’s called adaptive immunity—the specialized response to specific invaders that comes into play when innate immunity isn’t enough. Thanks to adaptive immunity infected cells get wiped out, and exposure to a specific pathogen can leave us with long-standing protection against that pathogen.
The detailed understanding of the immune system provided by the new Nobel laureates has given other researchers the ability to improve vaccines and to attempt to stimulate immune reactions to cancer. Their insights also inform efforts to damp down the immune system when it becomes too zealous, which can lead to excessive inflammation and autoimmunity.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]