On September 23, 2020, Jack Strominger, a professor of Higgins research, Department of Biochemistry, Harvard University, USA, won the citation laureate award, which is known as the wind vane of Nobel Prize. Strominger is now 95 years old, but his outstanding contribution in molecular immunology makes people think that he is still worthy of the Nobel Prize.
An octogenarian scientist
The famous physicist Andrew Strominger is the son of Jack Strominger. Even when the distinguished physicist won the breakthrough prize created by internet giants, he was still overshadowed by his fathers great fame. Andrew Strominger recalls with a smile, I take Dad out, and people come up to me and say, excuse me, can you take a picture of Jack and me with my camera?
The venerable Jack Strominger has published about 1000 papers in his nearly 70 years of research career, focusing on the structure and function of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) proteins and their role in diseases. He elucidated the mechanism by which penicillin kills bacteria and how the human immune system identifies and distinguishes intruders. Stromingers research has made outstanding contributions to human molecular immunology, which helps to promote the development of new drugs and vaccines. Whats more impressive is that Strominger has never interrupted his research work for many years, and in December 2018, he received a new grant from the Harvard University Laboratory.
The two-year grant is not very generous, it is only $300000. But it raises an interesting question: will Strominger be the oldest researcher funded by NIH in the United States? According to the freedom of Information Act, NIH is required to answer this question, but the final answer is No. The NIH did not tell people who was the oldest record holder, but said only 13 active researchers over the age of 90 were still supported by NIH.
Of course, this small group of 13 people has undoubtedly become a very special group for NIH, which has a total of 300000 people. What is the reason why they are still working in scientific research at the age of 90? Strommer replied, when youre in your nineties, youll have some choices. Some people choose to play bingo; some choose to watch TV; some choose to play chess; and I, I choose scientific research. They are all games. Scientific research is just a little more complicated. You have to get information from a variety of sources. And thats what I love Andrew said his fathers choice was based on pure affection. Scientists are a wonderful profession, and we are in an incredible universe, and it will be fun to explore it, he said
Jack Strominger admits that he is a man who loves to seek stimulation in the path of science, which he calls the quirk of fate.. Strominger entered Harvard University before the age of 17, graduated from Harvard Medical School in two years, and later became a young physician. But a series of changes made him finally decide to embark on the road of scientific research. At the age of 26, when he was independently responsible for laboratory research, his degree was still MD rather than Ph.D.
In the laboratory, Strominger set out to study the working mechanism of penicillin. It took him about 30 years to make this significant progress, he said: if I had realized at the beginning how complex the study of penicillin would be, I might never be able to solve it.
In the late 1960s, inspired by the first human heart transplant, Strominger stepped into the field of the immune system, hoping to understand how human rejection occurs. Twenty five years later, Strominger and his colleagues (mainly the late crystallologist don Wiley) made a breakthrough discovery: the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), a molecular structure on which the immune system can identify whether cells need to be removed. It is this breakthrough that Strominger won the citation laureate award in 2020.
DanielDavis, a professor of immunology at the University of Manchester, praised the research: it is comparable to the level of research leaps brought about by the discovery of DNA double helix structures. Like the double helix structure of DNA, the MHC structure brings light to biological research and greatly promotes the understanding of the real role of the immune system, Davis said.
He succeeded by asking the right questions
Now Strominger is working on another puzzle: why can a pregnant womans immune system tolerate a fetus in her body? At Stromingers Harvard lab, researcher Tamara tilburgs removed a fresh human placenta from a plastic container. The baby the placenta once raised has been born, and it has been donated to the laboratory for research.
The shape of the placenta is impressive. It looks like a piece of purple meat wrapped in a white fascia. The white umbilical cord extends from it. It takes only a few months to grow from scratch to the size of a Frisbee. We think its actually beautiful, tilburgs joked humorously What we need to do is understand how a pregnant womans immune system develops tolerance to the fetus during pregnancy, tilburgs and colleagues collected and analyzed a dozen different types of cells from the placenta
For nearly a decade, Strominger has been trying to solve the question: what weakens a mothers immune defenses so that her body can tolerate the fetus? How can she resist external infection after her immunity is weakened? This is a basic study, but it has high medical value: nearly 10 percent of fetuses are forced to give birth prematurely, and one of the factors contributing to premature birth is the molecules that make the mothers immune system start rejecting the fetus. If we can find a way to inhibit or counteract these substances, maybe we can prevent premature birth, Strominger said
Strominger focused specifically on a group of specific immune molecules in the placenta. One of the loci, HLA-C, has a dual role in tolerance and infectivity. Im really curious about the way its regulated. He said he thought about it day and night, and before he went to bed he had his eureka moment. Is it possible that all four molecules are regulated by a common enhancer?
The study made more progress in June last year. Strominger won a $4 million grant in a major collaboration with Dr Judy Lieberman of Harvard Medical School. The study will explore more about how the immune system works during pregnancy - for example, to avoid fetal infection, natural killer cells (NK) use tiny nanotubes to inject a toxin that kills microbes but does not kill target cells.
Its incredible, Lieberman says. As far as I know, this is the first time that NK has been proposed to kill microorganisms inside the target cells without damaging the target cells. Stromingers insights into how the mothers body puts brakes on the immune system to protect the fetus is valuable. She said of Strominger: he succeeded in getting funding because he was a great scientist; because he had a curiosity; because he asked the right questions.
Another five years!
With funding for the research, Stromingers only concern was her own health. After all, this ambitious scientist is old. Im lucky that even though I have arthritis, my brain is still clear, very clear, he said. I think the reason its still working right now is that Ive been using it all the time.
Strominger relies on walking aids for walking and hearing aids for hearing. But he is still optimistic, saying that he is basically in good health except for the common symptoms of old age. However, it is undeniable that the death rate accompanied by longevity is also hovering in front of us.
In academia, there is considerable controversy over funding for older researchers, because it may divide the resources of young scientists, who are more difficult to start their own careers. Lieberman thinks its a dilemma. It really makes it harder for young scientists to get started, she said. But Strominger did a good job. As a 90 year old man, you can still see his determination to make great discoveries.
Strominger is more simplistic, saying, I think my biggest contribution to science is my students. Im proud of their tremendous scientific contribution. He hopes to write another big paper on the immune system, further solve the mystery of the immune system, and continue to guide young scientists.
I sometimes ask, strommer said in an interview last year, Im 94 years old. How much time do I have? But I want another five years if I can
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