October 3, 2011
Bruce A. Beutler, MD, a 1981 graduate of the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, is among three winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for 2011. He shares the honor with Jules A. Hoffmann and the late Ralph M. Steinman for their discoveries about the immune system, which helped to lead to treatment and prevention of cancers and infectious illnesses.
Beutler is part of a family tradition at Pritzker. His father, Ernest Beutler, MD, a distinguished biologist, completed his undergraduate and medical programs and residency training at the University of Chicago, receiving his MD in 1950 at the age of 21. His brother, Steven, graduated from Pritzker in 1977.
Bruce Beutler was born in Chicago on Dec. 29, 1957, when his father was teaching at the University. The family moved to Southern California two years later. Beutler earned a bachelor of arts at the University of California San Diego and, at age 23, his medical degree at the University of Chicago.
In his fourth year at Pritzker, Beutler worked in the laboratory with neurologist Avertano Norohna, MD, professor of neurology, studying kainic acid-like molecules in Huntington’s disease in an effort to speed diagnosis. “He went to work on his project and, in short order, had data for publication,” Norohna said. They published a paper in 1981 in the Journal of Neurological Sciences.
He received further medical training at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, followed by postdoctoral research at Rockefeller University. He then joined the UT Southwestern faculty in 1986.
The Nobel Foundation lauded the 2011 medicine laureates, saying they have “revolutionized our understanding of the immune system” by discovering key principles for its activation. Beutler and Hoffmann discovered receptor proteins that can recognize microorganisms and activate innate immunity, the first step in the body’s immune response. Steinman discovered the dendritic cells of the immune system and their unique capacity to activate and regulate adaptive immunity, the later stage of the immune response during which microorganisms are cleared from the body.
The discoveries of the three Nobel laureates have revealed how the innate and adaptive phases of the immune response are activated and thereby provided novel insights into disease mechanisms. Their work has “opened up new avenues for the development of prevention and therapy against infections, cancer, and inflammatory diseases,” according to the Nobel Foundation.
“It’s very exciting news because it’s a very fundamental discovery in immunology that impacts much of the work we do here at the University of Chicago,” said Cathryn Nagler, PhD, professor of pathology at the University.
The discoveries by these three Nobel laureates will have very broad impact, said Vinay Kumar, MD, chairman of the department of pathology at the University of Chicago, who knew both Steinman and Beutler. “These findings are the intellectual foundation of how to design a good vaccine.”