Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

Top Canadian biomedical prize goes to antibody pioneer

The immunologist who revealed the structure and function of the crucial Fc region of antibodies was one of the researchers recognized today by the Toronto-based Gairdner Foundation for his contributions to biomedicine. Jeffrey Ravetch (pictured), along with six leading scientists in the fields of genetics, neurobiology and infectious diseases, has received one of the prestigious Gairdner awards, which have been called the ‘Canadian Nobels’. The awards come with a hefty C$100,000 ($101,000) cash prize for each winner.

Ravetch, now of Rockefeller University in New York, published a series of trailblazing immunology papers in the late 1980s and early 1990s showing that antibodies in the immune system possess a region called the Fc (or ‘fragment, crystallizable’) region. He found the Fc region is essential for initiating an inflammatory response and also that antibodies have both activating and inhibiting functions, a finding which overturned centuries of dogma about the regulation of the immune system. In subsequent years, he has gone on to show that the Fc region is part of a pathway that suppresses inflammation, publishing a  paper in Nature Medicine in 2000 that demonstrated Fc regions contribute to the effectiveness of tumor-destroying antibodies. “That paper was quite heretical at the time,” says Ravetch. Since then, engineering the Fc region has become a central concern for anyone designing antibodies as therapies for diseases such as breast cancer and lymphoma, and Ravetch’s work may also have applications for improving current antibody-based treatments for autoimmune disorders such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Such clinical advances are one reason that the Gairdner Foundation chose to honor Ravetch among its 2012 winners. “Dr. Ravetch changed the way we understand how antibodies work, leading to the design of new therapeutic approaches to autoimmunity and cancer,” says John Dirks, president and scientific director of the foundation.

Other International Award winners announced today include Rockefeller University’s Michael Young and his collaborators Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash of Brandeis University, located just outside Boston, for their work on the genetic mechanisms of circadian clocks, and Thomas Jessell of Columbia University in New York for his research into the connections between sensory and motor neurons. Brian Greenwood of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine locked up the Gairdner Global Health Award for showing that the pneumococcal vaccine and insecticide-treated bed nets both greatly reduce mortality among children in Africa—and for his advocacy efforts to bring such prophylactics to the region.

On 25 October the Gairdner prizes will be formally awarded in Toronto. To read about last year’s winners, click here.

Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Ravetch


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