Mosmann Awarded Novartis Prize for Basic Immunology

Jul. 1, 2013
International Prize Given Every Three Years for Breakthrough Contributions
Tim R. Mosmann, Ph.D.

Tim R. Mosmann, Ph.D., Director of the David H. Smith Center for Vaccine Biology and Immunology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, was awarded the 2013 Novartis Prize for Basic Immunology. He shares the prize, which is awarded every three years for breakthrough contributions to the fields of basic and clinical immunology, with Robert L. Coffman, Ph.D., Vice President and Chief Scientific Officer at Dynavax.

The prize was awarded for Mosmann and Coffman’s research on how the body responds to different invaders, for example, bacteria versus parasitic worms. In the early 1980’s, they zeroed in on a group of white blood cells called helper T cells or TH cells, which communicate with other cells to activate the immune system and wipe out intruders. They discovered that TH cells fall into two distinct groups: TH1 cells, designed to eliminate bacteria and viruses; and TH2 cells, which are more effective against extracellular organisms, like worms and other parasites.

“When Tim started this research, scientists thought that helper T cells could be divided into at least two subgroups, but no one had been able to prove this,” said Stephen Dewhurst, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Medical Center. “Tim elegantly showed that these cells could be divided into two subsets that produced different secreted proteins (cytokines) and that had different functions – a finding that profoundly changed the way people think about the immune system.”

“The realization by Tim Mosmann and Bob Coffman that CD4+ T cell (helper T cell) mediated immunity can be divided functionally on the basis of cytokine production profiles caused an immediate rethinking of the mechanisms underlying good and bad aspects of the specific host response to pathogens and in debilitating allergic conditions,” noted Peter C. Doherty, Ph.D., Nobel Laureate and Chair of Biomedical Research at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. “Their TH1/TH2 paradigm has defined this aspect of cellular immunity for more than two decades and led to a spectrum of novel findings and further insights that continue to influence the field. It is gratifying to see their great contribution recognized by this substantial award.”

Since Mosmann’s discovery, a huge amount of research has focused on how the immune system makes the choice between a TH1 and a TH2-driven response: A wrong move may not only render the body defenseless against the foreign invader, but can cause additional disease as well. One example is asthma, which results from an overly-aggressive TH2 response.

“Tim’s work is crucial for understanding TH2-driven allergic diseases like asthma, which is becoming increasingly common in the U.S. and worldwide,” noted Dewhurst.  “His fundamental discoveries have laid the groundwork for the development of new and more effective treatments for asthma and other allergic conditions, including several which are presently being tested in clinical trials.”

Mosmann and Coffman conducted the research at the DNAX Research Institute, which has since changed names. In addition to Mosmann’s position at URMC, the research has another Rochester connection: DNAX founder Alex Zaffaroni earned his Ph.D. in Biochemistry at the University of Rochester.

When discussing his groundbreaking work, Mosmann says, “As with many discoveries, we found this in a sideways fashion. We kept our eyes open, and when we saw a pattern we weren’t expecting we chased it and found some surprising information. The ability to follow your nose is so important in scientific research.”

Established in 1990, the Novartis Prizes for Basic and Clinical Immunology were created to honor outstanding research in the most challenging areas of immunology-based science and to increase interactions between scientists in academia and industry. The Novartis Prize for Clinical Immunology 2013 was awarded to James Allison, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Immunology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, for his work in understanding how cancers evade the immune system. The prize ceremony will take place at the 15th International Congress of Immunology in Milan, Italy on August 23, 2013.

“Tim Mosmann and Bob Coffman discovered two types of helper T cells, produced by pathways of differentiation that were unimagined prior to their work,” said Bruce Beutler, M.D., 2011 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine and Director of the Center for Genetics of Host Defense at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “This immediately cast light on questions of susceptibility and resistance to many infectious diseases, including some of the most important diseases that affect mankind.  It is a real pleasure to see their studies recognized in this way.”

Mosmann, a faculty member since 1998, is also the director of the Human Immunology Center. The prize money – 50,000 Swiss francs, around $53,000 – will support his current research, which focuses on additional subsets of T helper cells and how vaccines can be improved to induce very specific immune responses. Mosmann has won several other prestigious prizes, including the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize, the Avery-Landsteiner Prize from the German Society for Immunology and the William B. Coley Award from the Cancer Research Institute.