Baruj Benacerraf, the geneticist and immunologist who earned the 1980 Nobel Prize for his discovery of the gene that governs the immune system’s reaction to foreign bodies, died on August 2, 2011of pneumonia, at the age of 90.
Benacerraf started his Nobel Prize winning work with a chance observation. He had immunized a group of guinea pigs with a synthetic antigen, expecting to see all of the animals develop an immune response. But only about 40 percent of the rodents reacted, suggesting that individual genetic differences controlled the response. He then grouped the animals into responders and non-responders, and through a series of cross-mating experiments, confirmed that the response was controlled by a single dominant gene.
Interestingly, Benacerraf himself became allergic to guinea pigs as a result of the experiments, but it was “a small price to pay for the success of this project,” he wrote an autobiography published in the Annual Reviews of Immunology (ARJ) in 1991.
Hugh McDevitt and Allen Chinitz at Stanford University School of Medicine later discovered that Benacerraf’s “immune response” gene coded the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecule, which at the time was considered to be primarily involved in graft rejection. This connection illustrated that both graft rejection and pathogen rejection were mediated by the same molecule, and led the way for an understanding of autoimmune disease, organ transplantation, and differences in how individuals in a population respond to the same pathogen.
Reference The ScientistDaily (