The academic who developed a treatment for autoimmune diseases that has helped millions of patients around the world last night received a prestigious lifetime achievement award at this year's European Inventor of the Year awards.
Professor Marc Feldmann, from Imperial College London, received the honour for his work identifying why autoimmune diseases such as arthritis cause the immune system to fight itself, which began in the 1980s. Together with Imperial colleague Professor Sir Ravinder Maini, he discovered that the key lay in molecules responsible for cell communication, known as cytokines.
Cytokines are normally released by diseased cells for the purpose of alerting the immune system to initiate a counter-response. Professor Feldmann discovered that in autoimmune diseases, highly increased cytokine counts also exist around otherwise healthy cells. This explained the body's aggressive reaction in areas of arthritic inflammation around patients' joints.
In 1991, Professor Feldmann and his colleagues found that all the different cytokines could be stopped by blocking one kind, Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF)a. In 1992, the first series of successful trials were run with rheumatoid arthritis patients at the Kennedy Institute. The improvements in patients' health were so dramatic that the nurses could identify by mere sight which patients had been given a placebo and which had received TNFa blockers.
Since the method was patented in 1995, TNFa inhibitors have become the therapy of choice for stopping the inflammatory and tissue-destructive pathways of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.
Professor Feldmann, from the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology at Imperial College London, said of winning the award: "It is a wonderful feeling to have one's lifetime work and original inventions acknowledged in such a major way, only the second time this award has been given.
"The work on which this award was based was generously funded over a very long term by the Arthritis Research Campaign. Many people have also made major contributions to these inventions, especially Sir Ravinder Maini. Prof Fionula Brennan and Richard Williams performed many of the key experiments, and Dr James Woody enabled the first clinical trial of TNF blockade to occur," he added.
In 2003, Professors Feldmann and Maini were awarded the prestigious Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research for their work. The Lasker Awards have come to be known as 'America's Nobels' and 66 recipients of the Lasker award have gone on to receive Nobel prizes.
The European Inventor of the Year awards was presented at a gala event in Munich on 18 April 2007. This is the second time that outstanding inventors will be honoured with the award, which is instituted by the EU Commission and European Patent Office (EPO).
The awards recognise innovators and innovations that have made a significant and lasting contribution to technical development in Europe and beyond, and thus strengthened Europe's economic position. The finalists were selected by an independent high-profile international jury.