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  • Scientist Wins Kyoto Prize
Jun 2006
STANFORD, Calif., June 14, 2006 -- A genetics professor who directed the development of a cell sorter that has become an invaluable tool in diagnosing, monitoring and treating HIV/AIDS, cancer and infectious diseases has been named a recipient of the 2006 Kyoto Prize, Japan's equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

Herzenberg.jpgKyoto Prizes are presented annually by the Inamori Foundation to individuals and groups worldwide who have contributed significantly to human progress in one of three areas: advanced technology, basic sciences, and arts and philosophy. This year's winners were announced June 9. The official award ceremony will take place Nov. 10 in Kyoto, Japan, where each winner will receive a 20-karat gold medal and a cash gift of approximately $446,000.

Leonard Herzenberg, 74, professor emeritus of genetics at the Stanford University School of Medicine, won the advanced technology award for developing the first fluorescence-activated cell sorter, or FACS, in the 1960s. The FACS can tease individual living cells out of a population of trillions based only on their protein fingerprints. The sorter jump-started the fields of modern immunology, stem cell research and proteomics, and made invaluable contributions to clinical care, including treatment of diseases such as cancer, AIDS and other infectious diseases. FACS machines are now ubiquitous in research and clinical laboratories around the world.

"The FACS is one of the most important medical devices ever developed," said Philip Pizzo dean of Stanford's School of Medicine. "In the early 1980s, it provided fundamental insights into the impact of HIV on the immune system and it has been a valuable tool for diagnosing, monitoring and treating HIV/AIDS, cancer and infectious diseases. Professor Herzenberg is truly one of the leading innovators in human biology of the 20th century."

Like a coin sorter that separates a jumble of change into neat stacks of quarters, nickels, dimes and pennies, the FACS makes sense out of chaos. But rather than separating by size, it divvies up cells according to fluorescent tags attached to their surface during experiments. For example, it can shunt green-tagged cells into one tube, red into another and untagged cells into yet another. Because researchers can couple the tags to antibodies that home in on and attach to proteins found only in certain cell types, the sorter can pluck out rarer-than-rare immune stem cells for further study or identify populations of cells that are waxing and waning in such diseases as cancer or HIV. The possibilities of the technology, also known as flow cytometry, are limited only by the creativity of the users. 

The scientific problem in the 1960s that initially set Herzenberg on his path toward the cell sorter was pretty mundane: his eyes hurt. "I was sitting in the lab one day counting immunofluorescent cells under the microscope, and I said, 'There's got to be some kind of machine that can do this,'" he said. He found that scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico had developed a machine to sort cell-sized particles by volume in order to analyze the lung contents of mice and rats exposed to fallout from atomic bomb testing and headed there to meet with them.

The Los Alamos scientists weren't interested in modifying their system to detect fluorescent and live cells, Herzenberg said, but after a day and a half they allowed him to bring blueprints of their machine back to Stanford. At the time, Herzenberg was stationed near the laboratory of former chair of the genetics department Joshua Lederberg, who had received funding from NASA to devise instruments to detect extraterrestrial life. Scientists in the two labs got to know each other while sharing a Ping-Pong table set up in the stairwell, and Herzenberg capitalized on that relationship by convincing Lederberg engineers Russ Hulett and William Bonner to help him modify the Los Alamos plans. Together they and their colleagues cobbled together the predecessor of the first FACS, affectionately dubbed "The Whizzer," in the basement of the medical school for about $14,000. They published their success in Science in 1969.

By the early 1970s, the group had incorporated a laser to make the cells fluoresce more brightly, and invited the inventor of the ink-jet printer, Dick Sweet, to hone the machine's droplet-sorting technique. By 1971 the FACS was sorting 5000 live, functional cells per second, Herzenberg said.

Herzenberg went on to collaborate with medical technology manufacturer Becton, Dickinson and Co. to commercialize production of the FACS machine, and he was the first to realize how the newly emerging monoclonal antibody technology could make FACS analyses and sorting experiments reproducible among basic and clinical laboratories. He received the prestigious Novartis Prize in Immunology in 2004.

Herzenberg admits to feeling a bit proud of his achievement. "It is an awfully good feeling to open almost any scientific journal and find articles referencing the FACS technology," he said. "It's even being used to analyze plankton from the depths of the ocean and to perform experiments on the space shuttle." 

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