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Sir Gregory Winter wins prestigious Prince of Asturias Award

1 Jun 2012

The Spanish ‘Prince of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research 2012’ has been awarded to MRC scientist Sir Gregory Winter FRS, together with Dr Richard Lerner of the Scripps Research Institute, "for their decisive contributions to the field of immunology and, in particular, for obtaining antibodies of major therapeutic value".

The Prince of Asturias Awards aim “to reward the scientific, technical, cultural, social and humanistic work performed at an international level by individuals, institutions or groups of individuals or institutions”. The Award for Technical and Scientific Research is conferred on those “whose findings, inventions and/or research studies in the fields of Mathematics, Astronomy and Astrophysics, Physics, Chemistry, Life Sciences, Medical Sciences, Earth and Space Sciences or Technological Sciences, including the disciplines corresponding to each of these fields and their associated techniques, represent a significant contribution to the progress and welfare of mankind.”

In the 1970s, Dr César Milstein and Dr Georges Köhler of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) made a discovery – how to make rodent monoclonal antibodies – which allowed the creation of antibodies able to attack human cells or proteins involved in disease processes. Unfortunately these antibodies were not suitable for clinical use, as they were seen as foreign in humans, provoking a blocking human immune response.

In the mid-1980s, using protein engineering, Dr Winter discovered that the rodent monoclonal antibodies could be ‘humanised’ by transplanting the antigen-binding loops into human antibodies. Many important antibodies of this class were developed, including those against breast cancer (Herceptin) and colorectal cancer (Avastin).

In the late 1980s, Dr Winter invented another approach to making antibodies. This involved creating large libraries of antibody genes, expressing the antibody fragments in bacteria and identifying those with binding activities to the desired target. This allowed human antibodies to be created directly. At the same time Dr Lerner was developing a similar approach in the Scripps.

To translate this work to the clinic, the MRC, Dr Winter and other LMB scientists including Dr Milstein, co-founded the biotechnology company Cambridge Antibody Technology. This led ultimately to the first human antibody, Humira, to be approved by the US FDA for therapy. This antibody, used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, is now one of the world's leading pharmaceutical products. Millions of patients have been treated with antibody therapeutics; from royalties on its ‘antibody portfolio’ the MRC has received more than $750 million which has been ploughed back into medical research.

Commenting on his award, Dr Winter said:

"Antibodies are now used widely in medicine, and are reshaping the pharmaceutical industry, but the technologies underpinning their development all started from basic curiosity-driven research."

Professor Hugh Pelham, Director of the LMB, said:

"I am delighted that Greg Winter's contributions have been recognised in this way; his work is a perfect example of the successful translation of basic research into patient benefit and commercial success."

Dr Winter will be travelling to the awards ceremony in Oviedo in the autumn. The awards will be presented at a ceremony chaired by H.R.H. the Prince of Asturias. Each Prince of Asturias Award comprises a diploma, a Joan Miró sculpture representing and symbolizing the Awards, an insignia bearing the Foundation’s coat of arms, and a cash prize of €50,000.

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