German-Israeli collaboration in the 1980s set the stage for a new understanding of autoimmunity
Prof. Avraham Ben-Nun
Unusual insights into the immune system resulting in new therapies for several disorders have emerged from collaborative German-Israeli studies in the area of autoimmunity – a phenomenon in which the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues. A groundbreaking 1981 study by the Weizmann Institute’s Profs. Irun Cohen and Avraham Ben-Nun and Max Planck’s Prof. Hartmut Wekerle revealed that autoimmune cells are not just contributors to disease but are also present in a healthy organism. The discovery, which at the time challenged the accepted dogma, has opened a new avenue of research into autoimmunity.
Prof. Wekerle, now an emeritus professor at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Munich, first came to the Weizmann Institute as a postdoctoral student in 1970. “The three years I spent at Weizmann played a decisive role in my life; they shaped my professional direction and imprinted both my career and my personality,” he says. “I came to Israel as a young medical doctor without much scientific background, and the time I spent at Weizmann helped me obtain a position at the Max Planck Institute.” Prof. Wekerle has continued to visit Israel almost every year as part of a Minerva committee and to pursue scientific collaborations with Weizmann scientists, including Profs. Cohen and Ben-Nun.
For his part, Prof. Avraham Ben-Nun, who holds the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Professorial Chair, has forged a number of German connections: In 2003, he received the Sobek Prize from the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Germany, and in 2007, the Humboldt Research Award from the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology. The prizes were awarded for research that Ben-Nun initiated in the 1980s while still a Ph.D. student in Cohen’s lab, in collaboration with Wekerle. In some thirty years of research, Prof. Ben-Nun has shed new light on the role of immune T cells in multiple sclerosis. His studies have generated important insights that may improve the therapy for this disorder, which affects hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.
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