Thomas Boehm receives the Leopoldina Mendel Medal

Understanding the evolution of the immune system: Max Planck Director honoured by the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina

May 30, 2024

Thomas Boehm receives the 2024 Mendel Medal from the Leopoldina for his outstanding research in the field of immunobiology. The Max Planck director studies the genetic foundations of the immune system and its development throughout evolution.

Thomas Boehm's discoveries have fundamentally changed our understanding of the vertebrate immune system. For his groundbreaking work, the immunologist has been awarded the Mendel Medal by the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. Through extensive studies on a variety of organisms including mice, zebrafish, sharks, and lampreys, Boehm has uncovered the central principles of cellular immunity in vertebrates, providing a foundation for a deeper understanding of immune system adaptability.

Boehm has elucidated the mechanisms of T-cell development, identified the molecular basis of several immunodeficiency diseases, and discovered the first cancer genes (oncogenes) in T-cell leukemias. His research has particularly focused on the thymus, a central organ where bone marrow cells are converted into T-cells that fight infections and suppress autoimmune diseases. Boehm and his team identified the FOXN1 gene, demonstrating its necessity for thymus development in all vertebrates.

Another major focus of Boehm's research is the evolutionary origin of MHC-mediated peptide presentation. MHC molecules are crucial for presenting protein fragments (peptides) from cells, viruses, or bacteria, enabling the immune system to differentiate between endogenous and exogenous substances.

A few outstanding publications of Thomas Boehm

In addition to his theoretical contributions, Boehm aims to correct immune system malfunctions, such as those in autoimmune diseases where the body attacks its own tissues. His team is working on inducing artificial thymus tissue in living organisms, a feat already achieved in mouse embryos. The long-term goal is to generate artificial thymus tissue anywhere in the body to counteract the effects of diseased tissue.

The award ceremony will take place during the Class III - Medicine Symposion on Wednesday 10 July 2024 in Halle (Saale). Thomas Boehm will present his research in a lecture. Find more information on the event here.

CV Thomas Boehm

Thomas Boehm studied human medicine at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, and received additional training at Columbia University in New York (USA) and the Royal Marsden Hospital in London (England). Thomas Boehm graduated in Frankfurt in 1982, where he also qualified as a university lecturer in 1988. After clinical training in pediatrics and human genetics, and research at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge (England), he took up professorships for Medical Molecular Biology at the Albert-Ludwigs University Freiburg and Experimental Therapy at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg. Since January 1998, Thomas Boehm is director at the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics in Freiburg and an Honorary Professor at the Medical Faculty of the University of Freiburg. Thomas Boehm is a member of several learned societies, including the European Molecular Biology Organization, the German Academy of Sciences, the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2018, he has been appointed Chairman of Scientific Council of the Paul Ehrlich-Foundation. He is the recipient of several awards, including Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize for Young Researchers, the Gottfried-Wilhelm-Leibniz Prize (1997) of the German Science Foundation, the Ernst Jung Prize for Medicine (2014), the German Immunology Award (2020) and the Heinrich Wieland Prize (2021).

About the Leopoldina Mendel Medal

The Mendel Medal, established in 1965 to honor Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), the founder of the theory of heredity, is awarded by the Leopoldina for groundbreaking achievements in general and molecular biology or genetics. Notable recipients include biophysicist and Nobel Prize winner Max Delbrück (1967) and biologist Sydney Brenner (1970), who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2002. In 2022, biologist and Nobel laureate in medicine Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard was honored with the Mendel Special Medal.

About the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina

As the National Academy of Sciences in Germany, the Leopoldina provides independent, science-based policy advice on significant public issues. To achieve this, the Academy prepares interdisciplinary statements based on scientific findings. These publications present options for action, leaving the final decisions to democratically elected officials. The experts who prepare these statements work on an honorary basis and without any predetermined outcomes. The Leopoldina represents German science in international bodies, including the scientific consultations at the annual G7 and G20 summits. The Leopoldina has around 1,700 members from more than 30 countries, encompassing expertise from nearly all fields of research. Founded in 1652, the Leopoldina became Germany's National Academy of Sciences in 2008. As an independent academy, it is committed to the common good.

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