Unanue receives lifetime achievement award

Emil Unanue, MD, the Paul and Ellen Lacy Professor of Pathology and Immunology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association of Immunologists.

The award is the organization’s highest honor.


Unanue served as head of the Department of Pathology and Immunology at the university for 21 years. During his tenure, the immunology program became one of the most productive centers in the world for immunological research.

“Emil is one of the most important immunologists alive in the world today,” said Herbert W. Virgin IV, MD, PhD, the Edward R. Mallinckrodt Professor and head of the Department of Pathology and Immunology. “His many contributions include fundamentally important advances in understanding the immune responses that are pivotal to all current vaccine efforts.”

Unanue is recognized internationally as a leader in understanding how the immune system identifies foreign material, known to scientists as antigen, and how immune system T cells respond to it. The cells are important components of the body’s response to infectious diseases. When misdirected against the body’s own tissues, they can make major harmful contributions to autoimmune conditions including diabetes and arthritis.

In the early 1980s, Unanue’s research group uncovered a critical component of how T cells recognize invaders. Scientists previously had speculated that the cells were recognizing the shapes of intact pathogens, but Unanue showed that they were identifying parts of pathogens during their interactions with another group of immune cells, the antigen-presenting cells.

These cells pick up antigens and degrade them to fragments or peptides. Unanue and Paul Allen, PhD, the Robert L. Kroc Professor of Pathology and Immunology, discovered that antigen-presenting cells bind these peptides to a special group of molecules known as the major histocompatibility complex.

Through his continuing investigations of how immune recognition and attacks take place, Unanue has helped scientists gain important insight that one day may be harnessed to improve the body’s defenses against diseases and disarm misdirected immune attacks.

Among many other awards and honors, Unanue is a past recipient of the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, the Gairdner Foundation International Award and the Robert Koch Gold Medal from Germany.

The American Association of Immunologists was founded in 1913 and has nearly 8,000 members.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient-care institutions in the nation, currently ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.