Robert Koch Award 2016 goes to Alberto Mantovani and Michel C. Nussenzweig Kai Simons receives the Robert Koch Gold Medal for his life’s work

November 4, 2016

Berlin – The Robert Koch Foundation today jointly awarded this year’s 100,000 Euro Robert Koch Award to Professors >>Alberto Mantovani, Humanitas University, Milan, and >>Michel C. Nussenzweig, The Rockefeller University/Howard Hughes Medical Institute, New York. Professor >>Kai Simons of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden was awarded the Robert Koch Gold Medal for his life’s work. The awards were presented by Annette Widmann-Mauz, Parliamentary State Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Health, on November 4, 2016 at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

The two immunologists are being honored for their pioneering research work, which has resulted in new treatment options, for example in cancer or in the fight against HIV infections. Through their outstanding research, the laureates lay the foundation for understanding the way in which different immunological mechanisms function. Simons was honored for his lifetime achievements, in particular for his work in modern cell biology.

Parliamentary State Secretary Annette Widmann-Mauz remarked: “The three prize-winners have one thing in common: their research targets the celluar level – the smallest unit of life. The benefits they create, however, have a far greater reach – for mankind and the restoration of good health.”

Professor Alberto Mantovani is being recognized for his pioneering work on the link between inflammation and cancer. With his observations that cells of the innate immune system accumulate around certain cancer foci, he opened up an entirely new field of research. Mantovani was able to prove that phagocytes, which are involved in the natural inflammatory response, can be reprogramed in the oxygen-deficient microenvironment of tumors and influence tumor growth. The so-called “tumor-associated macrophages” behave as “corrupted policemen”: they promote cancer cell proliferation, release angiogenic factors that encourage new blood vessels to grow into the tumor and, by releasing enzymes, make the surrounding tissue more permeable to tumor cells, which can promote the formation of metastases. They also contribute to taming effective anti-tumor immunity by triggering molecular breaks called checkpoints in lymphocytes. By characterizing the involved chemo-kines and their receptors, Mantovani was able to demonstrate how a chronic in-flammatory response promotes the development and metastasis of cancer. These studies paved the way to a change in paradigm on the nature of cancer, from a tumor cell-centric view to one that includes corruption and taming of immune cells as an essential component of the “ecological niche” of neoplasia. This shift in vision is now reflected in the development of immunotherapy approaches targeting checkpoints and corrupted policemen.

Michel C. Nussenzweig’s groundbreaking work uncovered broad and potent neutral-izing antibodies to HIV-1 and established that they are a safe and effective immuno-therapeutic for infected humans. Nussenzweig addressed a fundamental issue in immunology – the lack of a detailed understanding of the human antibody response – by developing robust and scalable methods for the cloning of antibody genes from single human B cells. He first applied this approach to define how tolerance develops in normal individuals and later to the HIV-1 antibody problem. Nussenzweig’s discoveries of potent anti-HIV antibodies have reenergized the vaccine field and opened the door to new antibody based methods for HIV-1 prevention and therapy.

Professor Kai Simons received the Robert Koch Medal in Gold for his impressive lifetime achievements, in particular for his characterization of membraneforming lipids and the development of the Lipid Raft Model. He is an expert for cell mem-branes, those wafer-thin membranes made of a double layer of fat molecules (“li-pids”) which surround each cell of the human body. It was long thought that these membranes were only a largely uniform fluid matrix. Thanks to Kai Simons, it has been possible to clearly demonstrate the great dynamic and wide range of functions of lipid membrane systems. He discovered island-like structures in the lipid bilayer of cell membranes, which reminded him of the log rafts of Finnish lumberjacks drifting downstream – hence the name “lipid rafts”. However, in fact these nanodomains are dynamic. They fluctuate in size and can be clustered to form liquid platforms that play a significant role in signal transduction and many other membrane processes.

The lipid raft model is linked to new therapy approaches, for example in neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, in which malfunctions in lipid rafts play a role. Kai Simons also found clear evidence that many viruses – including influenza, Ebola, measles and HI viruses – use lipid rafts to invade their host cells or to leave them again, by encasing themselves with rafts from the cell membrane.

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.

The post-doctoral award for virology went to Dr. >>Jens Bosse, Heinrich-Pette-Institute in Hamburg, for his studies on the pathogenicity of DNA viruses. Dr. >>Alexander J. Westermann, Institute for Molecular Infections Biology at the Julius Maximilian University in Würzburg, received the microbiology award in recognition of his work on the role and detection of small RNA molecules. Dr. >>Andreas Schlitzer, Life & Medical Sciences-Institute, Bonn University, received the immunology award in recognition of his studies on the development and differentiation of myeloid cells.

About the Robert Koch Foundation

The Robert Koch Foundation is a non-profit foundation dedicated to the promotion of medical progress and is based in Berlin. It promotes basic scientific research in the field of infectious diseases, as well as exemplary projects that address medical and hygienic issues. Patron of the Foundation, which was founded in 1907, is German President Joachim Gauck.

The Foundation confers a number of distinguished scientific awards each year: the Robert Koch Award – one of Germany’s most distinguished scientific awards, the Robert Koch Gold Medal, three awards for young scientists and, since 2013, the Hospital Hygiene and Infection Prevention Award.

Robert Koch (1843 – 1910), after whom the award is named, was the founder of modernday bacteriology, for which he was awarded the 1905 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology. From 1891 until his retirement in 1904, Koch was Head of the Institute for Infectious Diseases in Berlin.


Christine Howarth, Tel. +49 (0)30-468-11599, E-Mail: