The immune system is central to the survival of humans in a world replete with potentially deadly microbes. This system has two major components: (i) the familiar “adaptive” immune system, which is mobilized by previous infections or vaccines to protect us against subsequent encounters with the microbe for which the vaccine is specific, and (ii) the less well known, but more ancient, innate immune system, which is rapidly mobilized in response to infection and results in inflammatory responses. Both systems are essential for human survival. Infants born without a functioning adaptive immune system, such as those with severe combined immunodeficiency, require heroic measures, such as bone marrow transplantation, if they are to survive. But the lack of a normally functioning innate immune system can also be life-threatening, as is seen in the repetitive severe infections in those with mutations in key components of the innate immune system.
The 2011 Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine is awarded to Jules A Hoffmann, Professor at the University of Strasbourg, Ruslan M Medzhitov, David W Wallace Professor of Immunobiology at Yale University, and Bruce A Beutler, Chair, Department of Genetics, The Scripps Research Institute. These three scientists have done path-breaking work that established the mechanisms of the innate system and have set the stage for a veritable torrent of work by others, leading to enormous progress and to the expectation of many practical applications of this knowledge to improve the overall function of the immune system.