professor Butcher takes home Sweden’s other big prize, the
Prize goes to researchers in
fields not covered by Nobel
By MITZI BAKER
Eugene Butcher, MD, has just won a $500,000
prize that he didn’t even know he was nominated for. When the
pathology professor answered his ringing phone last Tuesday –
something he said he rarely does – a voice on the other end
informed him that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the same
group that delivers the Nobel Prize, had selected him to receive
the Crafoord Prize.
“It was pretty amazing,” said Butcher, who also directs
the serology and immunology section at the Veterans Affairs Palo
Alto Health Care System. “I didn’t know much about this
prize because it is not often given in medicine. I didn’t
even know how to pronounce it; the man on the phone said it could
be pronounced like ‘Crawford.’ In mathematics and
astronomy, it’s a well -known award. My brother is an
astronomer so he was excited about it.” He said he still has
no idea who nominated him.
Butcher, shown in his office at the VA, has been named the
co-winner of the $500,000 Crafoord Prize for his research on how
white blood cells migrate to the locations where they are needed.
Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf will present Butcher with the
Crafoord Prize in Stockholm on Sept. 22. Photo: Mitzi Baker
Butcher received the prize for his immunology work and its
application to understanding arthritis. He will split the prize
with Harvard biologist Timothy Springer, PhD, who Butcher said has
been following a parallel path to his own. They have sometimes
collaborated and sometimes competed and even had a business
together for a few years. The work that earned the duo the prize
was “their studies of the molecular mechanisms involved in
migration of white blood cells in health and disease,”
according to the Crafoord Prize announcement.
The prize is earmarked for fields not covered by the Nobel Prize:
mathematics, geoscience, astronomy and basic biosciences,
especially ecology and evolution. One award is given annually, with
the category changing each year. In addition to the main fields
honored, every third year the prize can be given instead to
recognize a finding in the field of arthritis that is advanced
enough to suggest concrete medical applications. Although the prize
was established more than 20 years ago, the only other time it has
been given to researchers studying arthritis was in 2000.
Butcher studies the carefully choreographed series of events that
direct the response of the white blood cells, the body’s
immune defense team that responds to an injury or infection. The
ability of immune cells to cross through the blood vessels is
crucial to the launch of an effective attack.
On the other hand, having an overactive immune system, such as one
seen in autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, can cause
tissue damage and illness, so understanding the migration patterns
of white blood cells and the molecular interactions that lead them
to their target could suggest techniques to halt the response.
Butcher identified molecules that selectively pull out the correct
types of white blood cells that the body needs. There are about a
dozen main white cell players and a hundred or so variations, each
with its own special migratory program that determines when they go
Early on, he determined that one type of molecule called a selectin
provided the initial interaction between the blood vessel wall and
a white blood cell floating by in the blood. He later determined
that this one signal was not enough to differentiate between all
the various cells and went on to discover a series of molecular
steps a cell had to take to be coaxed out of the blood.
His early findings are now considered classic. “The proposal
was that this multi-step process is like a universal mechanism for
providing the specificity of white blood cells migration from the
blood. This has become kind of dogma now even though there are a
lot of aspects of it that really haven’t been proven
yet,” he said.
“It’s interesting when you propose something and then
10 years later it is so widely accepted that people don’t
even think you need to test it any more. “
Butcher continues to look at the interplay of the different stages
of trafficking, with an eye toward how to alter the signals.
“I am interested in how the cells are programmed to traffic
so we can start to manipulate the good and bad actors in the immune
world to change the nature of the immune response for the
better,” he said.
A direct offshoot of Butcher’s groundbreaking studies are
some clinical trials now under way. These studies are attempting to
block the overactive immune response of autoimmune conditions such
as inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis by inhibiting
recruitment of white blood cells.
“We’re hopeful that some of this stuff is going to lead
to some real applications, although that’s not why we do
it,” said Butcher. “We do it because it’s