Robert Koch Award 2017, together with Rafi Ahmed
Antonio Lanzavecchia is considered one of the most influential modern immunologists. Besides its immense range, the scientist’s comprehensive oeuvre is characterized by the great vision with which he investigated the molecular details of human immune response. For Lanzavecchia, this was always associated with the hope of better vaccines and more effective immunotherapies. Fundamental studies of the highly efficient division of labor between antigen-specific T- and B-cells in adaptive immune response were followed by in-depth cell biology research into the maturation process of dendritic cells in the mid-90s. They are the sentries of our immune system, and as such are responsible for stopping intruding pathogens and antigens, and presenting them to the cells of the immune system.
Lanzavecchia’s distinction of two functionally different main groups of memory T-cells – which he termed “central memory T-cells” in the lymphatic organs and the “effector memory T-cells” in the peripheral tissue – is now an essential part of modern immunology. This is particularly relevant for development of T-cell-based vaccines. For Lanzavecchia, fundamental immunology research is therefore always a means to an end. That is also true of immunotherapies with monoclonal antibodies, which increasingly attracted his attention. Using revolutionary technologies, the researcher succeeded in cloning human memory T-cells and then also virus-specific memory B-cells, which produce high quantities of tailored antibodies. Lanzavecchia has repeatedly succeeded in isolating pathogen-neutralizing antibodies from the blood of infected patients, testing them and then producing them in large quantities in an astonishingly short time – for example for SARS, Ebola, avian flu or human cytomegalovirus (HCMV). He made headlines worldwide by discovering a natural “super-antibody”, which detects all 16 sub-types of influenza A-viruses by binding to a conserved fragment of the viral membrane protein hemagglutinin – justifying the hope that a universal flu vaccine is possible. Lanzavecchia is certainly convinced that vaccination strategies like this are the future.