Robert Koch Foundation confers award on Professors Honjo and Wimmer

Honouring and recognising pioneering work in immune response and the understanding of viral infections

Berlin, November 9, 2012

Explaining mechanisms for natural optimisation of the reaction to pathogens/Gold Medal for life’s work in virus research

The Robert Koch Foundation conferred the 2012 Robert Koch Award with prize money of 100,000 euros on Professor Tasuku Honjo from the Institute for Immunology and Genomic Medicine at Kyoto University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan. The Robert Koch Gold Medal was presented to Professor Eckard Wimmer from the State University of New York, Stony Brook, USA. The awards were presented by Ms Annette Widmann-Mauz, state secretary of the Federal Minister of Health, in the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities on November 9, 2012.

Robert Koch Award
Tasuku Honjo was honoured for his pioneering work on molecular immunology and medicine. He explained fundamental mechanisms used by the immune system to combat pathogens, which improve antigen binding and elimination. This includes somatic hypermutation, a molecular mechanism via which specific antibodies to antigens are formed. Honjo found that the AID enzyme (activation-induced cytidine deaminase) he discovered changes the binding point of the antibody via somatic hypermutation, as well as the function of the antibodies by replacing parts of the antibody genes. This is known as class switch recombination. The mutation rate is roughly one million times higher than the natural mutation rate, which is why it is called hypermutation.

Besides the pioneering discovery of class switch recombination, Honjo also discovered the PD-1 molecule (programmed cell death 1), a negative co-receptor in the effector phase of immune response. A modulation of PD-1 can help treat viral infections, autoimmune reactions and tumours. Accordingly, Honjo’s scientific discoveries are vital to our understanding of immunity, immune diseases and cancer biology.

Robert Koch Gold Medal
In recognition of his life’s work, Eckard Wimmer was awarded the Robert Koch Gold Medal. He completed his doctorate of natural sciences in organic chemistry at the University of Göttingen in 1962. As a chemist, Wimmer was fascinated by the special characteristics of viruses as both living beings and non-living compounds of organic macromolecules. In 44 years of research into the polio virus, the pathogen which causes infantile paralysis, he published findings which are considered pioneering.
In particular, his achievements include sequencing the genome and explaining the gene structure of the polio virus, discovering a new method of protein translation, the first cell-free synthesis of a virus in an extract of non-infected cells and the first de novo synthesis of an organism (polio virus) without the use of a natural matrix.

The latter work led to the development of new strategies in producing viral vaccines based on computer-designed genomes with hundreds of mutations, and are currently undergoing trials, not only for the polio virus, but also for other human pathogenic viruses. Wimmer’s work played a crucial role in our understanding of the interaction between the virus and its host, and also provided essential information for strategies in combating viruses. If nothing else, he can be considered to have paved the way for the new discipline of synthetic biology.

Postdoctoral awards for young scientists
Also presented at the ceremony were the Robert Koch Foundation Postdoctoral Awards for outstanding work by young scientists, which come with prize money of 5,000 euros each. The German Societies for Hygiene and Microbiology, Immunology and Virology are each entitled to nominate suitable candidates.

Dr. med. Christina Zielinski, Berlin, was presented with the Award for Immunology for her research into the regulation of immune responses. Dr. rer. nat. Sandra Schwarz, Seattle, USA, received the Award for Microbiology in recognition of her work on bacterial protein secretion. The Postdoctoral Award for Virology went to Dr. rer. nat. Christine Goffinet, Ulm, for her research into the biology of the HI virus.

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