The University of Chicago can fill a couple of classrooms with all of the Nobel Laureates affiliated with the school, from Milton Friedman to Saul Bellow to Barack Obama. After Monday, a third room might have to be opened up, as Pritzker School of Medicine graduate Bruce Beutler became the 86th member of the exclusive club. Beutler, who graduated from our medical school in 1981, was honored with this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, along with Jules Hoffman and Ralph Steinman. The three scientists were credited with advancements in the field of immunology that have paved the way for new strategies fighting infections, cancer, and other diseases.
“I thought it was possible, but nobody can count on winning the Nobel Prize, so I’m just ecstatic,” Beutler, now at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, told the Chicago Tribune.
In the confusing calculus of the Nobel, Beutler and Hoffman split half of the total award for research on the innate immune system, known as the first line of the body’s defenses against infectious invaders. In the late 1990’s both scientists’ laboratories were looking for immune receptors that respond to signals on the surface of bacteria – Hoffman looking in fruit flies with genetic mutations, Beutler in mice. Within two years of each other, Hoffman discovered a fly mutant named “Toll” involved in the response to an infection, and Beutler found a similar gene in mice for a receptor (named, appropriately, the “Toll-like receptor”) that binds to lipopolysaccharide (LPS), a signal on the surface of bacterial cells.
These findings opened the floodgates to learning about new players in the innate immune system, including the discovery of a dozen more Toll-like receptors that recognize various pathogen signals – what some call “the eyes of the immune system.” Clinically, mutations in these genes can lead to either increased susceptibility to infection (if the innate immune system is too weak) or autoimmune and inflammatory disorders (if the innate immune system is too strong). Drugs that target this system might therefore be promising for the treatment of many different diseases.
“I think the most hopeful line or realm is in inflammatory and autoimmune disease,” Beutler told the Nobel website. “Inflammation is something that evolved to cope with infection, and when we speak of sterile inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and autoimmune diseases like lupus, probably some of the same pathways are utilized. It may very well be that by blocking TLR signalling you’ll have very specific therapies for those kinds of diseases.”
Beutler said that he received the news in bed, waking up in the middle of the night and reading an e-mail on his cell phone.
“I was a little bit disbelieving, so I went downstairs to look at my laptop,” Beutler said. “I went to Google News and saw my name there, so I knew it was real.”
At the University of Chicago Medical Center campus, the news quickly spread among former colleagues and teachers of Beutler, as well as scientists that who work in his field.
“It’s very exciting news because it’s a very fundamental discovery in immunology that impacts much of the work we do here at the University of Chicago,” said Cathryn Nagler, Bunning Food Allergy Professor of Pathology and Medicine at UCMC, told ABC-7.
“These findings are the intellectual foundation of how to design a good vaccine,” Vinay Kumar, MD, chairman of the department of pathology at the University of Chicago, who knew both Steinman and Beutler, told Reuters News.
A note of sadness hung over the award when it was discovered – to the Nobel committee’s shock – that Steinman had passed away from pancreatic cancer less than 72 hours before the award. Before his death, Steinman attempted to use the fruits of his own research into the adaptive immune system to create a “vaccine” against his own cancer. Because Nobel prizes are not awarded posthumously, it was uncertain Monday morning how the committee would proceed. But they quickly decided that half of the prize would still be awarded in Steinman’s estate at the official ceremony in December.
For his part, Beutler told the Nobel website that he had not yet made formal plans to celebrate, but was relishing the reconnection with friends and colleagues that the prize inspired.
“I’ve had so many letters from friends and people in my past, some of them really the distant past, it’s given me a warm glow, and that’s kind of a celebration in itself,” Beutler said.