Trio Wins Crafoord Science Award for Discovery of Regulatory T-cells’ Role in Autoimmunity

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by Patricia Silva, PhD |

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Crafoord Prize

Three researchers who discovered regulatory T-cells and their role in autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis (MS), have been awarded the Crafoord Prize by The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

The scientists — Shimon Sakaguchi, Fred Ramsdell, and Alexander Rudensky — are credited with advancing understanding of how the body works to counteract overly aggressive immune responses. They will share a prize of 6 million Swedish krona ($672,473).

“The beauty of this prize is not only the fundamental nature of the discovery. It’s also very interesting and stimulating story from the point of view of history and philosophy of science,” Klas Kärre, professor of molecular immunology at the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences and a member of the Crafoord Prize Committee, said in a video released in connection with the announcement.

The cells we call regulatory T-cells have not been known to scientists for very long. During the 1960s, scientists hypothesized that cells that suppress immune reactions should exist in the body. In the decades that followed, many researchers searched for them, but their results were not convincing and most eventually concluded that there were no such cells.

But Sakaguchi, professor at Osaka University in Japan, did not give up on the idea. He began a series of experiments in 1985 that culminated with him identifying regulatory T-cells in 1995.

Later, Ramsdell, head of research at Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in San Francisco, found a gene — now known as FOXP3 — that causes a severe autoimmune condition known as IPEX in children born with a mutated gene variant.

Both discoveries allowed Rudensky, professor at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, to conclude that FOXP3 is needed for regulatory T-cells to form normally.

Rudensky’s experiments in 2003 were soon accompanied by independent studies by Sakaguchi and Ramsdell describing FOXP3’s role in regulatory T-cells’ development.

Since then, hundreds of researchers have studied regulatory T-cells in the hope of eradicating autoimmune diseases.

The Crafoord Prize is intended to promote research in mathematics and astronomy, geosciences, biosciences — with an emphasis on ecology — and polyarthritis. The prize is awarded each year for work in one of the disciplines; which discipline is decided based on a schedule.

The Prize in Polyarthritis — as is the title of this year’s award — is only considered when a special committee has demonstrated that scientific progress in the field justifies a prize.

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