The immune system is central to the survival of humans in a world filled with potentially deadly microbes. Immunity has two major components: (i) the familiar “adaptive” immune system, mobilized by previous infections or vaccines to protect us against subsequent encounters with specific microbes, and (ii) the less well-known, innate immune system, which is immediately mobilized in response to infection through 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 is also 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 Hoffmann, Professor at the University of Strasbourg, Ruslan Medzhitov, David W. Wallace Professor of Immunobiology at Yale University, and Bruce Beutler, Professor of Immunology, University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. These three scientists have done path-breaking work that established the mechanisms of the innate system and provide new avenues for drug design to improve the overall function of the immune system.