Else Kröner-Fresenius-Stiftung (EKFS) is honoring Akiko Iwasaki’s groundbreaking contributions in the area of “Diseases of worldwide significance” and acknowledging her research work on immune responses to viral infections with the prize endowed with 2.5 million euros. The prize also furthers Professor Iwasaki’s plans for investigating post-acute infection syndromes such as long COVID and myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). The festive award ceremony took place on June 5th, 2023 at the Palmengarten in Frankfurt, Germany.
The long-term symptoms of such post-acute infection syndromes (PAIS) are manifold (including fatigue, shortness of breath, muscular aches & pains, “brain fog” and chest pains, among others). The clinical diagnosis is difficult because the cellular and molecular mechanisms have yet to be mapped out sufficiently. There are no specific options for treatment, but PAIS might possibly share common disease mechanisms.
For instance, in the case of some patients who have fallen ill with long COVID, Iwasaki describes in her work that increased levels of antibodies to viruses such as Epstein Barr virus are seen, suggestive of reactivation of latent herpesviruses. Above and beyond this, the scientist was able to show that the level of cortisol in patients with long COVID is lower in comparison to corresponding control groups, and changes in T cell and B cell activation.
On the basis of these findings, Professor Iwasaki plans to facilitate a greater understanding of the underlying mechanisms behind PAIS. The research scientist wants to utilize the prize money to work with her team on studying the immunoprofiles of patients who have fallen ill with PAIS. One aim of her research efforts is to identify so-called biomarkers, which are endogenous molecules that enable the differentiation of the various forms of PAIS.
Akiko Iwasaki, Ph.D., is Sterling Professor of Immunobiology and of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology at Yale University and director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Yale School of Medicine. Professor Iwasaki has made a variety of outstanding contributions toward understanding the underlying mechanisms behind immune responses to viral infections, contributions that have led to paradigm shifts. Alongside the field of antiviral immunity, Iwasaki has made key contributions to the development of vaccines and the science of immuno-oncology. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, and selected as Principal Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Professor Iwasaki was born and grew up in Japan, then proceeded to receive her academic training in Canada and the USA. She has been teaching at Yale University since 2000.
In the initial phases of her scientific career, Iwasaki described the mechanisms that play a decisive role in the activation of an adaptive immune response to RNA and DNA viruses. More than a decade ago, she developed a new type of vaccination strategy termed “prime and pull” which strengthens the resistance to herpesvirus infections. During the first step, the vaccine is administered via a conventional method. In a second step, chemokines are applied to the target tissue. They recruit T cells that migrate to the body’s mucous membranes, establish themselves there and locally strengthen the immune response. Her team adapted this strategy and developed a “prime and spike” approach to boost nasal immunity against SARS-CoV-2. Professor Iwasaki also has achieved successes in the field of immuno-oncology. For example, she demonstrated how a synthetic RNA molecule (originally developed to combat viruses) can also boost immune responses against tumors.
The prize is endowed with EUR 2.5 million. The sum of EUR 2 million is earmarked for the prizewinner’s future research. The research prize is awarded in alternating fields of biomedical science every two years.
On the jury’s decision: “The prize honors Professor Akiko Iwasaki’s outstanding work on the immune response to viral infections. It can furthermore be expected that Akiko Iwasaki’s research on long Covid and other post-acute infection syndromes will bring forth additional discoveries and advances in the coming years which ultimately might help with the diagnosis or treatment of these types of diseases.”
Members of the Jury for the Else Kröner Fresenius Prize 2023:
Soumya Swaminathan, Jury Chair (Chief Scientist at the WHO 2019-2022), Peter Piot (Special Advisor to the President of the European Commission), Ole Petter Ottersen (President, Karolinska Institutet), Valerie Mizrahi (Director, Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, Cape Town), Stefan Endres (Chairman of the Scientific Commission of EKFS) and Lars Maier (Member of the Scientific Commission of EKFS).