T

his year’s crop of MacArthur “geniuses” included artists, writers, computer scientists — and one biomedical researcher: Gabriel Victora, an immunologist who’s studying how our bodies respond to foreign invaders.

Victora — who runs an immunology research lab at Rockefeller University in New York City — didn’t pick up the phone the first time the folks at MacArthur tried to call to notify him he’d won the award. Nor did he pick up the second time his phone rang, or the third. He was sitting in on a seminar.

His reaction when he finally got the message: “You’ve got to be kidding.”

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Each of the 24 winners of the prize, which is granted annually by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, receives a $625,000 award over five years as an “investment in their potential.”

STAT chatted with Victora about his work, its applications, and the moment he found out he’d been dubbed a genius.

Tell me about your research.

We study how it is that antibodies become such great binders, how they bind so strongly to the target antigens [or foreign substances]. They don’t start like that. They start really poorly the first time they encounter a substance that triggers an antibody response. There’s an evolutionary selection happening in our bodies every day, all the time, at the level of individual cells. The B cells mutate their own genomes, and if that mutation makes them a little bit better at responding, that cell is selected to proliferate.

It’s sort of a Darwinian evolution: When you make random mutations and then select the best ones, you end up with a cellular population that’s better than when it started.

Where does that process occur?

It happens in germinal centers, which are these little structures that form inside lymph nodes or tonsils when you get exposed to an infection or a vaccination or something like that. That’s where the B cells go to do this evolutionary process. They start to mutate, are selected, and proliferate. They do this for weeks or months. And the B cells that go out should be better than the ones that came in.

The centers are stimulus-dependent. In places where you’re not stimulated by antigens very often, like your skin, there aren’t many. They’re always in places like your tonsils and your intestines. But if you step on a nail, you’re gonna get these forming in the lymph node that drains that area.

What’s innovative about your approach?

The thing that distinguishes our work is the use of both mouse model techniques and imaging. So we actually see the cells in the process of doing these things. We can almost visualize this evolutionary process happening.

The citation for the prize said that we provided some of the strongest data yet for the evolutionary process. I think many, many people contributed to that. We were just some part of it.

What are the applications of your research?

What we are understanding better now is how this process happens and how it shapes the antibody response that comes after pathogens. So hopefully by knowing these things, we’ll be better at targeting things like vaccinations.

One field we interact with quite a bit is lymphoma research. When B cells are making mutations and proliferating very rapidly in these germinal centers, they’re behaving a little bit like lymphoma would, but it’s sort of an under-control lymphoma. Most B cell lymphomas originate from the B cells making these mutations.

What was it like to find out you’d won?

It was very interesting. I got called by this funny number from Chicago in the middle of a seminar I was attending. I called them back, and they said, “Are you in a place where you can speak without anybody hearing you?” When they told me, I said, “You’ve gotta be kidding.” I had to keep it to myself for a few agonizing weeks.

The prize came to me but it’s all work I did together with many people. They should be acknowledged.

What do you want to do with the prize money?

I don’t know yet. I am just coming to grips with it.

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