Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

Yale immunologist wins new €4 million award

Ruslan Medzhitov

Brian Ach/HHMI

Most scientists will say that they go to the lab every day out of a pure love of science, not to make buckets of money. But for researchers at the pinnacle of their fields, science can be a lucrative trade. Win a Nobel Prize, and you could take home more than $1.2 million. Bag a Templeton Prize, and you could be depositing a $1.7 million check. Net a Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, first awarded earlier this year, and you’d walk away with a cool $3 million.

But that’s nothing compared to the €4 million ($5.1 million) purse attached to the Else Kröner-Fresenius Award, a new prize handed out today by the German non-profit Else Kröner-Fresenius-Stiftung (EKFS). Although €3.5 million of the prize money is intended for future research (leaving only €500,000 for the recipient to use as he or she pleases) the total value of new award makes it the most valuable single accolade in all of science, monetarily at least.

That accolade was given to immunologist Ruslan Medzhitov, a Russian-born scientist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who co-discovered and characterized mammalian Toll-like receptors (TLRs) in the 1990s. These pattern recognition molecules are now recognized as integral parts of the innate immune system that fight off microbial infections and detect associated damage. Many drug companies are actively targeting these receptors in the hopes of treating cancer, sepsis and inflammatory disease.

Two years ago, Medzhitov (pictured) was controversially overlooked for the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which went to the discoverer of dendritic cells (Ralph Steinman) and two other immunologists who elucidated key aspects of innate immunity (Bruce Beutler and Jules Hoffmann, with whom Medzhitov shared the 2011 Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine, the $1 million ‘Nobel Prize of the East’). At the time, 24 scientists wrote an open letter in Nature arguing that Medzhitov and his mentor Charles Janeway, who died in 2003, should have been recognized by the Nobel Committee for their seminal contribution of cloning a human TLR and showing that it activated signaling pathways that induce adaptive immunity.

However, according to Stefan Kaufmann, director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, the Nobel snub had no effect on Medzhitov’s selection for the new award. Medzhitov “was clearly one of more innovative researchers,” says Kaufmann, who, as president of the International Union of Immunological Societies, served as chair of the award’s executive committee. Plus, he notes, the Else Kröner-Fresenius Award recognizes both past achievements and ongoing research activity, and Medzhitov has an active research program that could aid in the development of new vaccines and anti-inflammatory medicines. (See this commentary that Kaufmann cowrote last year in Nature Immunology for more background on the award.)

The inaugural immunology-themed award was timed to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of EKFS founder Else Kröner. Going forward, the foundation expects to grant the award every four years to a different discipline of medical research.


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