The Robert Koch Foundation announces the 2012 laureates

Robert Koch Awards 2012 for major contributions to the elucidation of the immune response and to the understanding of viral infections

Berlin, Juli 12, 2012

The Robert Koch Foundation will honour Professor Tasuko Honjo from the Department of Immunology and Genomic Medicine at the Kyoto University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan with the renowned Robert Koch Award 2012, endowed with EUR 100.000. In addition, Professor Eckard Wimmer, “Distinguished Professor” at the State University of New York in Stony Brook, USA, will be awarded the Robert Koch Gold Medal 2012.

The Robert Koch Award Ceremony will take place on November 9, 2012 at the Berlin Brandenburg Academy of Sciences under the patronage of Daniel Bahr, the German Federal Minister of Health.

Tasuku Honjo received the award for his groundbreaking work on how the immune system optimizes immune reactions. Honjo has shown that in the activated B lymphocytes of an immune reaction, the genetic information encoding the antibodies is mutated and recombined, in order to optimize the binding to the antigen and its elimination. B lymphocytes are activated as part of an immune reaction to a pathogen or a vaccine. These processes are mediated by the enzyme “activation-induced deaminase”. Tasuku Honjo has discovered this enzyme. He has shown that it mutates the binding site of the antibody for the antigen, by “somatic hypermutation”, and changes the function of the antibodies, by exchange of parts of the antibody genes, in so-called class switch recombination. Honjo has deciphered these processes, and also shown how other lymphocytes induce and regulate them. His discoveries are key to the understanding of immunity and immune-diseases, like inflammation and allergy, but also the tumorigenic process.

In honour of his life’s work, Eckard Wimmer will receive the Robert Koch Medal in Gold. Wimmer trained as a chemist, and from the beginning he was fascinated by viruses with their dual nature of being alive and at the same time non-living aggregates of organic macro-molecules. Thus he became a pioneer of modern virology whose research on the polio virus, the causative agent of infantile paralysis or poliomyelitis, is a milestone of infectiology. This work includes, in particular: the sequencing and clarification of the gene organization of the polio virus; the discovery of a new mode of protein translation; the first cell-free synthesis of a virus in an extract of non-infected cells; and finally the first de novo synthesis of an organism (polio virus) without involvement of a natural matrix. This last research has later led to the development of new strategies for producing viral vaccines based on computer-generated genomes with hundreds of mutations. These are currently being tested not only for polio, but also for other viruses that are pathogenic for humans. Thus, Wimmer’s work has defined our understanding of the interaction between the virus and its host, and at the same time has yielded important new approaches for fighting the disease. He can be considered as a pioneer in the new discipline of “synthetic biology”.

The Robert Koch Award is presented annually and is one of the most prestigious and renowned scientific commendations in Germany. Under the patronage of the Federal President Joachim Gauck, the Robert Koch Foundation promotes the scientific fundamental research in the field of infectious diseases, immunology and supports measures to solve other health-related problems in countries of the third world.

The prize is named after Robert Koch (1843 – 1910), the researcher who is considered as one of the founders of microbiology. He was awarded