Statement from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences
October 4, 2011
The National Institute of General Medical Sciences congratulates Bruce A. Beutler, M.D., for receiving the 2011 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his “discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity.”
The Nobel Assembly cited his 1998 discovery that a protein called TLR4 (for Toll-like receptor 4) is the long-sought trigger of the body’s innate immune system. This protein, now also called the endotoxin (or LPS) receptor, helps the body recognize and defend against bacteria.
When the endotoxin receptor senses a bacterial molecule called LPS, it launches an immune response that includes inflammation designed to kill the bacteria. When levels of LPS are extremely high, the system can overload, leading to septic shock.
NIGMS has supported Beutler’s research since 2000, providing a total of more than $11 million to continue and extend his prize-winning work. These follow-up studies revealed the context and significance of the original observation. Specifically, NIGMS support allowed Beutler to discover more molecules involved in innate immunity and to help pioneer research on the genetic basis of immunity using genetically modified mice.
Beutler’s work has stimulated many other researchers to focus on innate immunity. Scientists have now identified about a dozen proteins that, like the endotoxin receptor, trigger the immune system to defend against attack by bacteria, viruses, fungi and other invaders.
The work has already led to improved vaccines against infections, treatments that stimulate the immune system to attack tumors, and new approaches to treating inflammatory diseases in which the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues.
“Beutler’s work helped form a molecular framework for a deeper understanding of innate immunity, which is essential for a normal immune response,” said Judith H. Greenberg, Ph.D., NIGMS acting director. “It has also shed light on the causes of—and potential treatments for—sepsis and chronic inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease.”
NIGMS has a long history of funding Nobel Prize-winning research. More information is available at http://www.nigms.nih.gov/education/pages/factsheet_NIGMSNobelists.aspx.