Two British researchers who pioneered treatments which have helped millions of people with rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases have been awarded the prestigious 2008 Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research, announced today.
Emeritus Professor Sir Ravinder Maini and Professor Marc Feldmann, who have been carrying out research together at Imperial College London since the 1980s, were selected for the $100K award by an international committee including Nobel Laureates and other world-renowned scientists.
Their research has led to the development of new drugs which tackle the inflammation and tissue destruction caused by rheumatoid arthritis and other diseases including ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, psoriasis, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
The treatments they developed, now used by millions of people across the world, have proved effective in most patients, even those resistant to all previous treatments. They also protect the joints from further destruction.
Previous treatment options for rheumatoid arthritis left almost half of all patients with symptoms of continuing disease, deterioration of physical function and progressive joint damage.
The breakthrough came for Professors Maini and Feldmann when they discovered how autoimmune diseases such as arthritis cause the immune system to fight itself. Their work showed that the key lay in molecules responsible for cell communication, known as cytokines.
Cytokines are normally released by immune cells, to alert the immune system to initiate a protective counter-response against infections. Professors Maini and Feldmann discovered that in autoimmune diseases, cytokines are over-produced, with highly increased cytokine levels around otherwise healthy cells. This leads to the signs and symptoms of disease and in rheumatoid arthritis it explains the body's aggressive reaction in areas of arthritic inflammation around patients' joints.
In 1991, the two Professors and their colleagues found that all the different cytokines causing inflammation could be stopped by blocking one kind, Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF) alpha. In 1992, the first series of successful trials were run with rheumatoid arthritis patients at Charing Cross Hospital, now part of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust. The improvements in patients' health were so dramatic that the nurses could identify merely by observation, without access to blood tests, which patients had been given a placebo and which had received TNF alpha blockers.
The Professors' work stimulated the development of three anti-TNF drugs, infliximab, etanercept and adalimumab. Furthermore, a new branch of medicine known as anti-cytokine therapy is now emerging, which builds on their work. This research is looking at other cytokine messengers, in addition to TNF, to see how targeting these messengers might treat more conditions.
Professor Feldmann, Head of the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology at Imperial College London, said: "Our findings were exciting because we discovered a new way of treating not just rheumatoid arthritis, but also a host of other chronic inflammatory conditions and perhaps acute ones too. It's great to see that through targeting other cytokine messenger molecules, as well as TNF, we now have the potential to tackle even more diseases and help even more patients. I believe Dr Janssen would have been intrigued as we explore the range of diseases which may be treatable by these anti-cytokines."
Professor Maini, former Head of the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology at Imperial College London, added: "Our discovery of anti-TNF therapy for disabling chronic inflammatory conditions was the result of contributions made by many colleagues and collaborators and only possible because of advances in molecular medicine and biotechnology. The joy of the fruits of our work is that it made a difference to the lives of so many patients, an outcome that Dr. Janssen especially would have appreciated."
Established by Johnson & Johnson, the Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research honours the founder of Janssen Pharmaceutica. The award salutes the most passionate and creative scientists in basic or clinical research, whose scientific achievements have made, or have strong potential to make, a measurable impact on human health. Professors Maini and Feldmann will be presented with their award and prize at events in New York and Beerse, Belgium in September.
Solomon Snyder, Ph.D., Distinguished Service Professor of Neuroscience, Pharmacology and Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Chairman, Janssen Award Selection Committee, said: "The work of Feldmann and Maini exemplifies the bench-to-bedside approach that Paul Janssen's contributions epitomized. It is extremely rare for researchers to identify a molecular messenger in test tube studies, demonstrate its physiologic relevance in animals and themselves carry these efforts forward to a successful clinical demonstration. Feldmann and Maini did all of this, leading to therapeutic agents of inestimable, lifesaving importance."
"The work of Feldmann and Maini has dramatically transformed the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions and given millions of people new hope," said Paul Stoffels, M.D., Company Group Chairman, Research & Development, Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson. "The passion with which these two scientists have driven forward translational research reflects the leadership and innovation that defined Dr. Paul. Johnson & Johnson is delighted to honor them with the Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research."
In addition to winning the 2008 Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research, Professors Feldmann and Maini have been widely honored for their work. They have received various prizes including the Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award in 2003 and the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science in 2000.