Beutler won the Nobel Prize for his breakthrough on the innate immune system, more precisely: on toll-like receptors. He discovered that one toll-like receptor, TLR4, was responsible for the identification of bacteria on a molecular level. Mice without functioning TLR4 were unable to beat bacterial infections. Beutler is a doctor by training, but always was a scientist at heart. Already as a teenager, he had worked in his father’s lab: Ernest Beutler was a renowned pioneer in modern hematology. His parents had fled with him from Germany in 1935. Young Bruce was just as gifted as his father: He finished high school at age 16 and graduated from college at 18. He went to medical school at the University of Chicago, just like his father – but the pull of the lab was stronger.
Jules Hoffmann was awarded the Nobel Prize together with Beutler: he had described the role of the toll-gene for the innate immune system of fruit flies. The third recipient, Ralph M. Steinman, who had coined the term “dendritic cells” in the 1970s, died three days before the prize was announced of pancreatic cancer. Since the Nobel Committee hadn’t been aware of his death, he is still considered a Nobel Laureate; normally, the prize is not awarded posthumously. Hoffmann is a Luxembourg-born French biologist who has spent his career working with the model organism drosophila melanogaster, or fruit fly. He had studied and worked in Strasbourg, and now is the research director of the National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS) there. Today, toll-genes and toll-like receptors are known to exist in mammals, insects and even plants. In fruit flies, they play a crucial role in embryonic development, as well as in the immune system. Ten human TLRs are known, mice have three additional TLRs. With their presence in the dendritic cells, they are also considered to form an important link between the innate and the adaptive immune system. Many drug development efforts have targeted these receptors and have for instance developed treatment strategies against autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Labs around the world are working on novel strategies to modulate the immune responses to bacterial or viral infections. Bruce Beutler, as well as Jules Hoffmann will give lectures at the present Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Videos of these lectures will be posted soon.