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Researchers win prize honoring exceptional immigrant scientists

Photo by Harold Shapiro
Ruslan Medzhitov (left) and Richard Flavell are winners of a prize that honors significant contributions of foreign-born scientists and artists to American life.

On February 5, the Vilcek Foundation announced that two immune-system researchers at the School of Medicine will share one of the 2013 Vilcek Prizes, awards that recognize significant contributions to American science and the arts made by immigrants.

Richard A. Flavell, Ph.D., chair and Sterling Professor of Immunobiology, and Ruslan M. Medzhitov, Ph.D., David A. Wallace Professor of Immunobiology, were honored for their long-standing and influential work on the innate immune system, the first line of defense against infection by bacteria and viruses.

This year’s Vilcek Prize in the arts and humanities will go to cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma. The prizes carry a cash award of $100,000.

Born in the United Kingdom, Flavell received his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1970 at the University of Hull and came to Yale in 1988 to lead its immunobiology program. Flavell and colleagues have discovered several important receptors of the innate immune system, and he has made major contributions to our understanding of how activation of the innate system triggers the adaptive immune system’s more specialized responses.

Medzhitov, a member of the Yale faculty since 1999, is a native of Tashkent, Uzbekistan. He immigrated to the United States in the early 1990s, having been inspired by the then-controversial theories of innate immunity championed by the late Yale immunobiologist Charles A. Janeway Jr., M.D. At the time, innate immunity was deemed unimportant and received scant scientific attention, but by 1997 Medzhitov, Janeway, and colleagues identified an innate immune system receptor in humans that acts as a pathogen-detecting sentinel and activates adaptive immunity. The study of innate immunity has since seen explosive growth, and Medzhitov’s work continues to have significant implications for autoimmune diseases, cancer, and other illnesses.

“We are pleased to honor two truly outstanding scientists. The pioneering work of Ruslan Medzhitov and Richard Flavell has led to important insights into the mechanisms of the immune responses, which has implications for many fields of biomedical studies,” said Jan Vilcek, president of the Vilcek Foundation.