Immune Response: How Max Cooper may have saved your life

A half-century ago, immunologist Max Cooper made a historic discovery that forever changed our understanding of the human immune system.

Portrait of Max Cooper

Max Cooper

Cooper’s breakthrough—that the body has two separate kinds of lymphocytes, or white blood cells, to defend itself—opened the door to a new world of treatments and vaccines.

For his joint work on this discovery that has helped to save countless lives, Cooper, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Emory’s School of Medicine, is a recipient of the 2019 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, the most prestigious biomedical research award in the US.

Cooper, a member of the Emory Vaccine Center and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, is being honored along with Jacques Miller from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. “The 2019 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award honors two scientists for discoveries that have launched the course of modern immunology,” read the Lasker Awards website.

Cooper and Miller identified and defined the function of B and T cells, a monumental achievement that uncovered the organizing principle of the adaptive immune system. The adaptive immune system “remembers” specific invader organisms (known as pathogens) or other abnormal cells in the body that it has encountered previously, and eliminates them.

His landmark discoveries provided a framework for understanding how white blood cells normally combat infection — and how they can undergo abnormal development to cause immune deficiencies, leukemia, lymphomas, and autoimmune diseases.

“I cannot imagine a field of research that is more exciting or one that offers better opportunity to explore the balance of life on our planet. Perhaps this view explains why I am hooked for life.”

Max Cooper
Cooper’s work also contributed to medical knowledge that enabled transplants of bone marrow stem cells to treat blood cell cancers.

“Max’s contributions to the field of immunology are enormous and transformative,” says Rafi Ahmed, director of the Emory Vaccine Center. “He continues to conduct groundbreaking research.”