TUBERCULOSIS & MALARIA: Professor Brigitte Askonas Obituary
Professor Brigitte Askonas, who has died aged 89, was one of the founders of modern immunology, which deals with the way the body combats infection and disease. Her achievements led to her being compared to Paul Ehrlich, the father of immunology, and Louis Pasteur, the father of infection research.
Professor Brigitte Askonas
7:38PM BST 03 Apr 2013
Trained as a biochemist, Ita, as she was affectionately known, became involved in immunology as a research assistant at the National Institute of Medical Research in Mill Hill, London, when, during research on proteins in goat’s milk, she noticed antibodies in the milk. (Antibodies are proteins used in the immune system to identify and neutralise foreign objects such as bacteria and viruses).
In 1957, when a department of Immunology was set up in Mill Hill, she became a founding member . She initially focused on antibody synthesis, showing that antibody-secreting cells did not just reside in lymph tissue, but also in bone marrow and lung tissue. She succeeded in cloning memory B cells (antibodies made during a primary infection which protect against reinfection) in vivo long before Georges Köhler and César Milstein developed the hybridisation method which made it possible to generate large quantities of the cells, earning themselves the 1984 Nobel Prize for Medicine.
In 1976 she was appointed director of the Department of Immunology. During a key period researchers at Mill Hill and other centres showed that subsets of white blood cells, called B cells and T cells (or T lymphocytes), play a central role in the immune system by attacking targets such as virus-infected cells and tumours. Over the next few years Brigitte Askonas and others, including Emil Unanue, clarified the role of cells known as macrophages, showing that when macrophages scavenge proteins, viruses and bacteria, they then present to the T cells, initiating a full-scale immune response.
Most importantly, using real pathogens she showed the important role of T cells with specific toxicity against influenza viruses. Unlike antibodies which neutralise specific viruses before they enter the cell, these T cells can detect and kill those cells hosting a range of influenza viruses.
This finding laid the groundwork for international research efforts over the subsequent decades in a wide range of infectious diseases including HIV, malaria, TB and pandemic influenza. For example, because current anti-flu vaccines are based on antibodies, a new vaccine has to be produced every year to protect against the predicted mutation of the virus. Researchers are now trying to create vaccines against influenza and other diseases which act by stimulating T cells.
Brigitte Askonas was born in Vienna on April 1 1923 to Czechoslovak parents, Jewish converts to Catholicism. Her father and his brother owned a chain of knitting mills. The family left Austria after the Anschluss and eventually settled in Canada.
From Wellesley College, Massachusetts, Brigitte went on to McGill University, Montreal, where she graduated in Biochemistry in 1944 and later gained an MSc. She then got a post at the newly founded Allan Memorial Institute of Psychiatry at McGill, where she researched the biochemistry of dementia with Karl Stern.
In 1949, however, she came to Britain to do a PhD in muscle enzymes in the Biochemistry department of Cambridge University, where she studied under Malcolm Dixon. After completing her doctorate she joined the National Institute of Medical Research in Mill Hill, where, apart from sabbaticals at Harvard and in Basle, she remained until her retirement in 1988.
Brigitte Askonas was a modest woman who rarely talked about her achievements, but she had a profound influence on immunology not only in her own research but also by fostering an interest in immunology in young scientists and supporting them in the development of their careers. Many of today’s leading immunologists around the world began their careers as her PhD or postdoctoral students, among them Professors Andrew McMichael, Alain Townsend, Peter Openshaw, Charles Bangham and David Wraith. Her parental status in the international scientific community was exemplified in the final months of her life, when generations of her scientific offspring could often be found at her home, preparing meals, gardening or mending the internet.
After her retirement she continued to advise scientists at all levels and to take an interest in the development of immunology research, becoming a regular visitor to the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine in Oxford and the departments of Leukocyte Biology and Respiratory Medicine at Imperial College London. She published more than 200 articles in biomedical research, the most recent being papers on H5N1 “avian” flu in 2012.
Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1973, she served on its council and was a vice-president of the Society in 1989-90. She was a founding Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences; and an honorary member of the American Society of Immunology, of the Société Française d’Immunologie and of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Immunologie.
In 2007 she was awarded the Koch Foundation’s Robert Koch Gold Medal, the leading international scientific prize in microbiology.
After service in the British SAS Regiment the author became a physician and then an orthopaedic surgeon.
He has held professorial positions in Canada, Vietnam and the United States, practiced and taught orthopaedic surgery in three continents and in several wars.
He has extensive experience as an expert witness in court. Somewhere along the way, time was found to operate a four hundred acre mixed farm, a one hundred seat restaurant and to obtain a licence as a flying instructor.
The author's books are available from bookstores, the publishers, or from on-line bookstores such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indigo/Chapters.