Emil R. Unanue, MD, an internationally renowned immunologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has received a Sanofi-Institut Pasteur Award for his invaluable contributions to the field of immunology.
The annual awards honor scientists who have made outstanding contributions to biomedical research in fields that profoundly affect global health. This year, the honorees stood out for their advances in tropical and neglected diseases, and immunology.
Unanue, one of four researchers honored at a ceremony in Paris, was recognized for his work to understand how the immune system identifies foreign protein fragments, or antigens — a first step in mounting an immune response. That work has paved the way for research into therapies for autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, which are caused by misdirected immune responses.
“I am very honored to receive this award and this recognition,” said Unanue, the Paul and Ellen Lacy Professor of Pathology and Immunology. “I have been fortunate throughout my career to work with and among extremely dedicated researchers whose ultimate goal has been to understand and advance science. I am grateful that support for basic research exists and am encouraged by the promise of innovation still to come.”
During Unanue’s tenure as head of the university’s Department of Pathology and Immunology from 1985-2006, the immunology program became one of the most productive centers in the world for immunological research.
He is recognized internationally as a leader in research to decipher how the immune system recognizes foreign antigens and how immune system’s T cells respond. These cells are important components of the body’s response to infectious diseases. When misdirected against the body’s own tissues, they can make major harmful contributions that lead to autoimmune conditions.
In the 1980s, Unanue’s research group uncovered a critical component of how T cells recognize foreign invaders. Scientists previously had speculated that the cells were recognizing the shapes of intact pathogens, but Unanue showed that they were identifying parts of pathogens during their interactions with another group of immune cells, the antigen-presenting cells.
These cells pick up antigens and degrade them to fragments or peptides. Unanue and Paul Allen, PhD, the Robert L. Kroc Professor of Pathology and Immunology, discovered that antigen-presenting cells bind these peptides to a special group of molecules known as the major histocompatibility complex.
Through his continuing investigations of how immune recognition and attacks take place, Unanue has helped scientists gain important insight that one day may be harnessed to improve the body’s defenses against diseases and disarm misdirected immune attacks.
Among his many awards and honors, Unanue is a past recipient of the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, the Gairdner Foundation International Award and the Robert Koch Gold Medal from Germany. He also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association of Immunologists.
He is a member of the National Academy of the Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine.
Sanofi-Institut Pasteur laureates are selected each year by a jury of noted experts in the life sciences. This year’s jury was headed by Nobel laureate Peter C. Agre, MD, director of the John Hopkins Malaria Research Institute.
Created in 2012, the Sanofi–Institut Pasteur Awards encourage and support scientific excellence and innovation in the service of global health. They stem from a collaboration of Sanofi — a leader in the pharmaceutical industry — and the Institut Pasteur — an internationally renowned center for biomedical research with a network of 33 institutes worldwide.