Susumu Tonegawa and the Creation of Antibodies

Today is the birthday of Susumu Tonegawa, who was born on September 6, 1939.  Tonegawa received the 1987 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine – the first Japanese scientist to do so – for discovering how antibodies are made.

Antibodies are proteins created by our immune systems to fight pathogens (harmful agents) such as bacteria and viruses.  For more than a century, scientists believed that each of our genes could produce one protein.  The trouble is that the human body contains fewer than 19,000 genes, yet we produce millions of antibodies.

In the 1970s, Tonegawa showed that our genetic material actually rearranges itself in order to create different antibodies – genes move around, recombine and even delete themselves.  This principle is now known as “immunity diversity.”

Remarkably, Tonegawa began as a molecular biologist before switching his field to immunology.  Even more remarkably, after his Nobel Prize he switched fields again to study neuroscience.  In recent years, his lab has made several groundbreaking discoveries in how memories are created and stored.

As a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a baseball fan, Tonegawa got to throw an opening pitch during the Boston Red Sox’s 2004 World Series championship season.

Agilent uses antibodies to diagnose cancer cells.  Different antibodies will react to different cancer types.  By testing cancerous biopsy tissue with specific antibodies, a pathologist can determine where the cancer is from, what the cancer subtype is and also – in some cases – what kind of drug can be used to treat it.

This technique, known as advanced staining, was invented by Dako, a Danish company acquired by Agilent in 2012.  Agilent currently touches one third of all solid cancer tumor samples worldwide.


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