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12/18/2002 08:00:00

Caltech Biologist Pamela BjorkmanWins Max Planck Research Prize

Pamela Bjorkman, professor of and executive officer for biology at the California Institute of Technology, has been awarded the Max Planck Research Prize by the Max Planck Society in Germany. She joins 11 other outstanding international researchers in this year's honor.

The award is presented each year to "individual foreign and German researchers who lead their respective fields with regard to outstanding, internationally recognized scientific achievements," according to the society's official Website. The award carries a cash prize of up to $125,000 euros (approximately $125,000), and enables winners to collaborate intensively and on a long-term basis with partners from around the world.

Bjorkman, a specialist in the mechanisms of the immune system, has been a member of the Caltech faculty since 1989. She also holds an appointment as a full investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She is a graduate of Harvard University.

In naming Bjorkman to the honor, the society cited her work in determining how the human immune system fights disease at the molecular level, especially in the differentiation between endogenous and alien proteins.

"Bjorkman has contributed greatly to elucidating these mechanisms with the help of molecular immunology—particularly by determining the crystal structure of the MHC complex," according to the award citation. "It is the differences between the MHC molecules in each individual person which are responsible for the rejection reaction occurring in organ transplantations. And these differences also play a role in the detection of diseased cells.

"Bjorkman was able to show that the MHC molecules not only present alien but also endogenous peptides. If the latter are misidentified by the T cells as alien peptides, healthy cells and tissues are destroyed. Thus it became clear where the reasons for autoimmune diseases may be found."

Contact: Robert Tindol (626) 395-3631