Institute immunology pioneer wins Lasker Award

Institute immunology pioneer wins Lasker Award

Illuminate newsletter index page, September 2019
September 2019
Emeritus Professor Jacques Miller AC has won a Lasker Award, one of the highest international honours in medical research.

Professor Miller was joint recipient of the 2019 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award with Professor Max Cooper of Emory University, US. They received the award for identifying immune cells called T and B cells, which have critical roles in our immune system.

The impact of this discovery on modern medicine is immense. It underpins many important innovations including vaccine development, organ transplants, identifying and treating autoimmune diseases and immunotherapy to treat cancer.

Professor Miller is the eighth Australian recipient of a Lasker Award, four of whom have gone on to receive a Nobel Prize. The Lasker Awards recognise living persons who have made major contributions to medical science.

Below is an edited version of a feature story on Professor Miller, published on the Institute’s Discovery Timeline website. The Discovery Timeline, launched for our centenary, marks 100 years of achievements at the Institute.

Emeritus Professor Jacques Miller
Professor Jacques Miller in his laboratory in the 1960s.

An extraordinary life

For Jacques Miller, a fragment of conversation he overheard as a child sent him on a scientific quest that defined his professional life; a life that became an extraordinary one.

Professor Miller was only eight when he heard a doctor trying to explain to his mother how helpless the medicine of the day was against the tuberculosis that was consuming Miller’s eldest sister.

Professor Miller remembers, “The doctor kept saying, ‘We don’t understand anything about resistance to infectious disease’.”

Many years later, as a medical researcher, Miller pierced that scientific bafflement. He solved the key mysteries of how the human body fights infection, and how its defense systems sometimes go into destructive overdrive.

“Jacques is the living person who most deserves the Nobel Prize and never got it,” declares Sir Gustav Nossal, who was director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for 31 years.

“He was the person who discovered the function of the thymus. The thymus was seen as an evolutionary relic that did little or nothing – Jacques Miller discovered it was, in fact, the conductor of the immunological orchestra. It is the mastermind organ of the immune system.”

This and another key discovery by Professor Miller have led to new treatments of illnesses ranging from autoimmune diseases such as lupus, immunodeficiency diseases such as Di George syndrome, and cancer.

Microscope image of bright orange cells on black background
The thymus was thought to be a cellular ‘graveyard’ before
Professor Jacques Miller discovered its critical immune
function. Image: Daniel Gray and Julie Sheridan (WEHI)

Challenging the status quo

It was as a medical researcher in London in 1961 that Professor Miller made his first big discovery. He was studying the blood cancer leukaemia in mice. At that stage the thymus was known only as a graveyard for dying white blood cells called lymphocytes.

Professor Miller discovered that the thymus actually makes lymphocytes (T cells) and sends them out into the rest of the body where they fight infections.

This was the key to many other important discoveries. A thymus that goes into a production frenzy and produces too many lymphocytes causes leukaemia.

A thymus that produces T cells that don’t work properly and attack the body’s own cells, rather than bacteria or viruses, causes autoimmune diseases such as lupus.

And now it has been discovered that T cells can also be used to cure cancer, Professor Miller says.

“Cancer cells sometimes have antigens on their surface and a type of ‘tool’ that prevents T cells from attacking and killing them. The molecular structure of that ‘tool’ has recently been discovered in America, and if you block it, the T cells can attack the cancer cells. Many melanomas are curable now.”

Spectacular discovery

Professor Miller’s second major discovery was equally as triumphant. He was curious about why, even if he removed the thymus in newborn mice, they still could produce some antibodies. Where could the antibody forming cells have come from, if not the thymus?

He found the answer a year after he arrived at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute: the bone marrow. A second kind of blood cell that forms antibodies is made in the bone marrow (B cells). B cells and T cells are tailored to defend the body against different infections; when your body is infected with a particular germ, only the B cell or T cell that recognises it will respond.

Those selected cells then quickly multiply, forming an army of cellular soldiers to defeat the infection. Special types of T cells and B cells ‘remember’ the invader and help make you immune to further attacks.

What did it feel like to make discoveries that have proved so important to science? His eyes light up and he takes a deep breath:

“Absolutely spectacular”.

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