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Innate immunity pioneer receives international prize

Medicine@Yale, 2011 - July August


Ruslan M. Medzhitov, Ph.D., the David W. Wallace Professor of Immunobiology, is one of three scientists awarded the 2011 Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine.

A member of Yale Cancer Center and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, Medzhitov has made groundbreaking contributions to the understanding of Toll-like receptors (TLRs), an evolutionarily ancient component of the innate immune system that provides rapid, first-line defense against infections. Medzhitov’s work has elucidated how TLRs sense microbial infections, TLR signaling, and TLR activation of inflammatory and adaptive immune responses.

In 1997, Medzhitov and the late Yale immunobiologist Charles A. Janeway Jr., M.D., published the results of seminal experiments in the journal Nature showing that TLRs provide the adaptive immune system with the necessary information to create custom-made B and T cells that target specific bacterial or viral invaders.

Since then, TLRs have become the subject of intense research activity in laboratories around the world. Because of their ability to potently stimulate adaptive immune responses, TLRs are promising drug targets.

Medzhitov shares the prize with Jules A. Hoffman, Ph.D., director of the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Strasbourg, France, and president of the French Academy of Sciences, and Bruce A. Beutler, M.D., founding director of the new Center for the Genetics of Host Defense at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas.

TLRs were discovered in fruit flies, in which they were believed to serve only a developmental role, but Hoffman showed TLRs also acted as immune sensors in insects. Beutler demonstrated that the receptor identified by Janeway and Medzhitov, now known as TLR4, acts by detecting distinctive molecular patterns in the outer membranes of bacteria.

“I am delighted that The Shaw Prize has recognized Ruslan Medzhitov’s outstanding research,” says Robert J. Alpern, M.D., dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine. “Ruslan demonstrated the role of the innate immune response in the adaptive response and then identified the mechanism by which this occurs.”

Medzhitov has received many honors for his large body of work. Last year, he won the Lewis S. Rosenstiel Award for Distinguished Work in Basic Medical Research. Medzhitov was also elected last year to the National Academy of Sciences, the elite corps of scientific advisors selected from the nation’s top institutions.

The Shaw Prizes, international honors that carry a monetary award of $1 million (U.S.), are given by the Hong Kong-based Shaw Prize Foundation for achievement in the life sciences, astronomy, and mathematics. Established in 2002 by filmmaker and philanthropist Run Run Shaw, the awards are “dedicated to furthering societal progress, enhancing quality of life, and enriching humanity’s spiritual civilization.” Medzhitov will receive the award in Hong Kong in September.

Medzhitov was born in 1966 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, then part of the Soviet Union. He received his undergraduate education at Tashkent State University and obtained his Ph.D. from Moscow State University in 1993. Medzhitov first came to the School of Medicine in 1994 as a postdoctoral fellow in Janeway’s laboratory. He was named assistant professor in 1999 and professor in 2003. “I am very honored to be a recipient of this prestigious award,” Medzhitov says. “Awarding this prize in the field of innate immunity is a reflection of the great advances made by many investigators in the field.”