Featured past winners

Every three years, the Novartis Prizes for Immunology recognizes exceptional scientists that have made groundbreaking contributions to both basic and clinical immunology in some of the most challenging areas of immunology-based research. Some awardees have gone on to win other notable prizes such as the Copley Medal, Lasker Award and Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Some prize winners from the last 25 years are featured below:

Cracking the human papilloma virus (HPV)

John Schiller, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, USA

Doug Lowy, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, USA

Ian Frazer, University of Queensland, Australia

The 2007 Novartis Prize for Clinical Immunology went to John Schiller, Doug Lowy and Ian Frazer for their discoveries of the protein-peptide biology of the human papilloma virus.

By assembling the two proteins that form the outer shell of HPV, the teams were able to form particles closely resembling the original shell. These virus-like particles stimulate the immune system to create high levels of potentially protective antibodies; they are not, however, infectious as they lack the viral genes required for replication. Exploiting this discovery ultimately led to two HPV vaccines, Gardasil and Cervarix, which protect against cervical cancer, genital warts and other subtypes of the virus.

“When we started this work, there was no greater optimism for an HPV vaccine than there was for an HIV vaccine. In fact, there was scepticism that it could work at all”

Dr. John Schiller, Ph.D

The vaccines borne from the discovery have been delivered in over 120 countries around the world and further research to develop the next generation of treatment is under way. If successful these could prevent 90% of cervical cancers worldwide.

CTLA-4 and checkpoint inhibitors

James Allison, University of Texas, USA

The Novartis Prize for Clinical Immunology 2013 was awarded to James Allison for his research on CTLA-4; a molecule expressed on T-cells which blocks the body's natural immune response. While most researchers investigating cancer immunology were advocating vaccines to ‘turn on’ T-cells, Allison took the opposite approach and developed an antibody to block the CTLA-4 pathway.

Allison’s research evolved into the first in a new class of drug known as immune checkpoint inhibitors. These drugs are able to achieve a powerful response by freeing the immune system to attack and inactivate tumours.

Allison’s laboratory demonstrated that 90% of the cancers in treated mice disappeared. A human version of this antibody became ipilimumab, a successful treatment for advanced-stage melanoma and the first drug in history to show a survival advantage in metastatic melanoma.

Research in the field broke open following Allison’s work, and substantial efforts were made to develop inhibitors of other checkpoint proteins. Fittingly, in 2013, Science magazine named cancer immunotherapy the “breakthrough of the year,” citing Allison’s work in particular.

The discovery of dendritic cells

Ralph Steinman, Rockefeller University, New York

The 2004 Novartis Prize for Basic Immunology went to Ralph Steinman, who in the 1970’s discovered dendritic cells and determined their role in antigen presentation. Steinman identified that dendritic cells are critical sentinels of the immune system, directing and regulating the immune response by programming other cells to recognize and destroy intruders.

Following the discovery, Steinman proved that dendritic cells are the two main initiators of T-cell-mediated immune responses. He and his team went on to develop techniques to grow dendritic cells in culture rather than isolate them from mixtures of immune cells. This important step made dendritic cells readily available for study and opened the door to other researchers.

Steinman's later research investigated the many medical applications of dendritic cells, such as enhancing the response to vaccines, and to protecting against HIV or other infectious diseases.

On 3 October 2011, Steinman was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work. Sadly, after a four-and-a-half year battle with cancer, he passed away three days before hearing the announcement.

Steinman’s work lives on through the many laboratories around the world that devote their work to the basic biology and clinical applications of dendritic cells, many as part of immune therapies for cancer. An example of this is sipuleucel-T, which is considered the first approved and marketed cancer vaccine.

Treatments with IL-1β antagonists

Charles Dinarello, University of Colorado, Denver, USA

Jürg Tschopp, University of Lausanne, Switzerland

The Novartis Prize for Clinical Immunology 2010 was awarded to Charles Dinarello and Jürg Tschopp for their contributions to the discovery and regulation of IL-1β, determination of its biological functions and the use of IL-1β antagonists for the successful treatment of certain inflammatory diseases.

The work of Dinarello and Tschopp played a crucial part in establishing the validation of cytokines as mediators of disease, particularly of inflammation. Their focus on IL-1β, and the implications of overproduction of this cytokine, ultimately led to the development of IL-1β antagonists (such as canakinumab and anakinra) for the treatment of a variety of inflammatory conditions, including Cryopyrin-Associated Periodic Syndromes (CAPS), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), systemic juvenile idiopathic arthritis (SJIA) and gouty arthritis.

Fellows, colleagues and friends paid tribute to Jürg Tschopp who sadly passed away just seven months after the presentation of this award; "His legacy shall inspire current and future generations of scientists."

Identifying the human T-cell receptor

Tak Mak, University of Toronto, Canada

Mark Davis, Stanford University School of Medicine, California, USA

In 1998, the Novartis Prizes for Immunology was jointly awarded to Tak Mak and Mark Davis for independently isolating and identifying the gene sequence which encodes the human T-cell receptor (TCR).

Until their discovery the scientific community had hypothesized that T-cells were able to kill ‘self’ cells after identifying that they had been invaded. However, research in this area was limited as nobody had been able to isolate the receptor molecule on the T-cell surface responsible for identifying foreign invaders.

The two teams independently published their findings in the summer of 1984. This breakthrough marked a major contribution to the understanding of the human immune system, its function and its role in immunological diseases.

The understanding and knowledge of the T-cell’s action and the TCR functionality has led to advances in the treatment of conditions ranging from infectious diseases such as HIV and the common cold, through to autoimmunity and cancer. There is currently considerable excitement among the oncology community regarding chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cells and their potential to treat a range of cancerous tumours; research which has been made possible by the categorization of the human TCR.

Current Winners

The Novartis Prize for Basic Immunology

The Novartis Prize for Basic Immunology has been awarded to John Kappler, Philippa Marrack and Harald von Boehmer for their work in demonstrating how the immune system is able to discriminate “self” from “non-self” through a process in the thymus based on positive and negative selection via T-cell receptor mediated recognition of peptide-MHC complexes.

John Kappler - National Jewish Health, USA

Philippa Marrack - National Jewish Health, USA

Harald von Boehmer - Emeritus, Harvard Medical School, USA

Philippa Marrack: "Immune cells attack almost all foreign invaders but, usually, not ourselves. Our finding showed that most immune cells that could damage us die in their adolescence"

The Novartis Prize for Clinical Immunology

The Novartis Prize for Clinical Immunology has been awarded to Zelig Eshhar, Carl June and Steven Rosenberg for their work on the pre-clinical and clinical development as well as technological application of cellular immune therapy using Chimeric Antigen Receptor-T cells (CAR-T-cells) for diseases such as cancer.

Zelig Eshhar - Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel

Carl June - University of Pennsylvania, USA

Steven Rosenberg - National Institutes of Health, USA

Steven Rosenberg: "The use of cell transfer immunotherapy to target unique mutations present in the patient’s cancer provides an opportunity to extend immunotherapy to a wide variety of cancers"

Past prize winners

Click the dates below for more details on past prize winners: