OSAKA – Immunologist Shimon Sakaguchi, one of the 2015 recipients of Canada’s most prestigious medical research awards, has attributed the achievement to his endless commitment to fighting disease.
“When conducting experiments, I always remember that my task is to discover ways to contain diseases,” said the 64-year-old Osaka University professor.
Sakaguchi was selected in March for this year’s Gairdner International Award, considered to be an indicator of future Nobel Prize winners, for his discovery of “regulatory T cells,” or Treg cells, which act as a check to prevent excessive immune reactions.
Without these cells the body would attack healthy cells and die.
The results of his research are now being applied to cancer treatment and research on prevention of transplant rejections.
“He was the first to determine their molecular basis and function,” the Gairdner Foundation said.
Sakaguchi earned both his medical degree and a Ph.D. from Kyoto University, in 1976 and 1983, respectively. He joined the Aichi Cancer Center in 1977 to pursue further research after quitting the university’s graduate school.
He theorized the existence of cells that prevent excessive reactions in the immune system, noting that mice suffer an autoimmune disease that attacks the body once the thymus, which is associated with the system, is removed.
Although the hypothesis saw him labeled a heretic, Sakaguchi persevered with his research.
He then discovered the molecule for regulatory T cells in 1995, and eight years later he found the genes that are vital to produce the cells.
The relief at the discoveries was such that “tension in my cheeks eased naturally,” he said.
Before receiving the award, Sakaguchi was often told by his colleagues that he had not received the recognition he deserved. But he said it never really troubled him.
“Apparently my nerves are as thick and strong as udon noodles,” he said.
Sakaguchi is grateful for the longtime support of his wife, who works in the same Osaka University laboratory as a special assistant professor.
He said what intrigues him about immunology is that the system has the ability to distinguish between the self and nonself — a philosophical question.
Sakaguchi is currently interested in finding out why so many people suffer from allergies today, hypothesizing that the functioning of regulatory T cells may be declining in extremely clean environments.
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