1996: Understanding how the immune system recognises virus-infected cells. Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine

Nominated by: Swiss Biotech Association

Organisations in nomination: Rolf M Zinkernagel, Professor of Experimental Immunology at the University of Zurich   

Viruses infect host cells and reproduce inside them. Immune system killer T-cells destroy those infected cells so that the viruses can’t reproduce.

Professor Zinkernagel, working with Peter Doherty, discovered that in order for killer T-cells to recognize infected cells, they had to recognize two molecules on the surface of the cell, not only the virus antigen, but also a molecule within the major histocompatibility complex (MHC).

This recognition is achieved through a T-cell receptor on the surface of the T-cell.  The MHC had previously been identified as being responsible for the rejection of incompatible tissues during transplantation. Zinkernagel and Doherty discovered that the MHC was also responsible for the body fighting meningitis viruses and were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

The insights from this Nobel-winning discovery, how killer T cells recognise cells to target, have enabled scientists to further investigate how T cells can be used in medical applications, with therapeutics such as CAR-T now presented in immunotherapeutic cancer treatments.



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