Australian immunologist claims top US award

French-born scientist’s discoveries explained the organising principle of the adaptive immune system

September 10, 2019
Jaques Miller immunologist Walter and Eliza Hall Institute WEHI Lasker Award
Source: Lasker Foundation

A pioneering Australian immunologist is being tipped as a future Nobel prizewinner after receiving the US’ most prestigious award for medical research.

Jacques Miller, an emeritus professor with the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) in Melbourne, has claimed this year’s Lasker Award for basic medical research.

He shares the prize, and its US$250,000 (£200,000) honorarium, with Max Cooper of Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. In separate but complementary animal studies during the 1960s and 1970s, the pair discovered the two distinct classes of lymphocyte immune cells – B cells and T cells – in what the Lasker Foundation hailed as “a monumental achievement that…launched the course of modern immunology”.

The two researchers’ laboratories simultaneously identified T cells, which are produced in the thymus – an organ considered a redundant evolutionary relic until Professor Miller revealed its role in the immune system – and B cells, which mature in the bone marrow.

“We then showed that these two cell types play different but equally important roles,” he said. “T cells stimulate B cells to produce antibodies which can protect against infection.”

WEHI said that the discovery’s impact on modern medicine had been immense, underpinning medical innovations from vaccine development and organ transplants to the treatment of autoimmune diseases and immunotherapy to fight cancer.

Director Doug Hilton said that teasing T and B cells apart had been “a truly groundbreaking discovery” that had helped spawn a “broad swathe” of modern medical research. “Much of the institute’s ongoing research can be traced back to Jacques’ work,” Professor Hilton said.

Established by health activist Mary Lasker and her philanthropist husband Albert, the Lasker Awards are presented annually to researchers, clinician scientists and public servants who have made major advances in the diagnosis, understanding, treatment or prevention of disease.

They are also considered a predictor of Nobel success. Eighty-eight Lasker laureates have claimed the Nobel Prize since the awards’ creation in 1945.

The Lasker is the latest in a long line of honours for Professor Miller. His accolades include the 2018 Japan Prize, which he also shared with Professor Cooper, along with the 2003 Australian Prime Minister’s Prize for Science and the Royal Society’s 2001 Copley Medal.

He was noncommittal about his Nobel prospects. “It’s very difficult to get a Nobel Prize,” he said. “I just don’t want to talk about it.”

Born in France, Professor Miller’s early life was indelibly influenced by two events. His younger sister contracted tuberculosis, ushering the family to Switzerland where the best TB treatments were available.

The outbreak of the Second World War when he was eight forced the family back to China, where his father had managed a bank several years earlier. The family fled to Australia when the Japanese threatened in 1941.

Professor Miller said that his early wartime experiences had driven him into medicine rather than the army. “I didn’t want to kill people; I’d rather patch them up,” he said.

His sister’s ultimately fatal condition had also influenced his career choice. “She used to spit bloodstained mucus in the room where my other sister and I were playing, but we never got the disease,” he said.

“When I went through medicine I decided I would prefer to do medical research than be a general practitioner, because I would be excited to find new things.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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