The 1996 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine has been awarded to Australia’s Peter C. Doherty and Switzerland’s Rolf Zinkernagel for their breakthrough insights into the inner workings of the human immune system.
The two Nobel laureates figured out how the body identifies viruses and other invading microorganisms as “foreign.” The work, carried out in the 1970s at the John Curtin School of Medical Research in Canberra, Australia, showed how the immune system distinguishes between normal and infected cells, laying the groundwork for current research in cellular immunology. The discoveries have led to insights into understanding the development of certain cancers and diseases of the immune system such as AIDS and rheumatoid arthritis.
Doherty and Zinkernagel, now director of the Institute of Experimental Immunology at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, “discovered the phenomena that the rest of us have been trying to understand since 1974,” says Harvard University immunologist Don Wiley.
Doherty and Zinkernagel discovered that white blood cells must identify simultaneously a viral invader and proteins on the body’s own immune cells. “Everyone had just assumed that it was the virus alone that caused the immune response,” says Doherty, now chair of immunology at St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. “No one had really thought that the body’s own cells were involved.” Doherty attributes his success to bold thinking and a little luck. “You have to keep an open mind and be willing to step outside the paradigms,” he says. “It turns out that we made a couple of good guesses.”