Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Max Cooper was awarded the 2019 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award on Tuesday for his work in identifying the function of B- and T-cells, the major elements of an adaptive immune system.

Cooper shares the award, which includes a $250,000 prize, with Jacques Miller, emeritus professor at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia. Cooper will use part of his share of the cash prize to continue his research and will give the remaining share to his wife.

The two immunologists built on each other’s research during the 1950s and 1960s to discover that B- and T-cells cells are capable of recognizing specific pathogens and cancer cells. 

B-cells, which develop in bone marrow, produce proteins called antibodies that recognize harmful bacteria and viruses and tag them to be destroyed. T-cells develop in the thymus gland, an organ previously believed to have no function, and help identify infected and cancerous cells. 

Cooper, who is a pediatrician by training, said that he first became interested in understanding the human immune system after working with patients with immunodeficiency disorders. At the time, little was known about the body’s ability to combat harmful pathogens. 

“[My patients] had inherited defects in their immune system, which lay them open to infections over and over,” Cooper said. “It was clear that we had to go back and learn more about how the immune system develops and functions.”

When Cooper began his research at the University of Minnesota in 1963, Miller had already discovered that the thymus gland, which was previously believed to have no purpose in adult mammals, contained T-cells. 

Cooper observed that some of his patients with underdeveloped thymus glands could still produce antibodies. He found chickens possessed an organ called the bursa of Fabricius that housed B-cells and produced antibodies. Through further research, Cooper soon discovered that mammalian B-cell production occurs in bone marrow.

Cooper said his patients inspired him to better understand the human immune system.

“The thing that really captured me … was having patients who were extremely vulnerable to infections,” Cooper said. “That was a strong motivation to want to do something about it — when you take care of someone [who,] for no fault of their own, can’t defend themselves or their life.” 

Caroline Silva (22C) contributed reporting.