Emory immunologist Max Cooper to deliver 2020 Distinguished Faculty Lecture

By Quinn Eastman | Emory Report | Sept. 2, 2020

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Fifty years ago, Max Cooper made a historic discovery that forever changed the understanding of the human immune system. On Sept. 8, he will deliver this year’s Emory University Distinguished Faculty Lecture, titled “How Did Our Immune System Evolve?”

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Max D. Cooper, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, will present this year’s John F. Morgan Sr. Distinguished Faculty Lecture.

The lecture is entitled "How Did Our Immune System Evolve?" It will be held virtually via Zoom on Tuesday, Sept. 8,  beginning at 6 p.m. EDT. The Distinguished Faculty Lecture is hosted by the Emory University Faculty Council. Please register for the event here, as Zoom capacity may be limited. The lecture will be recorded, and details of where to access the recording will be shared after the event.

Cooper has a unique perspective on the evolution of the immune system, as his ground-breaking research spans a variety of species: birds, mammals and jawless fish. Many of the advances of modern immunology, such as monoclonal antibody drugs for fighting cancer, Ebola and (possibly) COVID-19, are made possible, at least in part, by Cooper’s discovery of B cells.

As a young physician-scientist in the 1960s, he discovered in chickens that there are two distinct cell lineages in the adaptive immune system, now known as T cells and B cells. The T cells use cell-to-cell contact to “sniff out” viral infections or cancer, while the B cells produce antibodies that “glob onto” invaders.

In 2019, Cooper received the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award. This distinguished honor recognizes researchers with contributions that represent major advances in medical science, and frequently precedes a Nobel Prize in Medicine.  

Cooper was honored with the Lasker Award together with Jacques Miller from the Hall Institute of Medical Research in Australia, who established the importance of thymus, an organ where T cells develop. Cooper showed that an avian organ called the bursa of Fabricius is the site where B cells mature, and he characterized their different stages of development. Later, Cooper and colleagues showed that, in mammals, B cells are generated in the fetal liver and in the bone marrow after birth.

Cooper came to Emory in 2008, from the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Recently, his laboratory has been studying lampreys, primitive-looking aquatic creatures with surprisingly sophisticated immune systems. Lampreys and hagfish diverged from sharks and fish around 500 million years ago. To defend themselves against microbes, lampreys’ immune cells produce proteins that grab onto foreign substances, much the same as human antibodies. However, these proteins don’t look anything like the antibodies found in mammals, birds or jawed fish.

Through a collaboration with Thomas Boehm, an immunologist from Freiburg, Germany, Cooper has established that lampreys use a different form of DNA recombination to create their vast array of antibody-like proteins, called VLRs (variable lymphocyte receptors). Studying lampreys thus provided scientists a glimpse of where the human immune system came from, as well as how it might have looked if evolution took a different path.

Cooper is part of the Emory Vaccine Center, Emory Center for AIDS Research and the Winship Cancer Institute. He is a former president of the American Association of Immunologists and of the Clinical Immunology Society. He also is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2017, he was elected to the Académie des Sciences of the Institut de France and to the Royal Society of London.

In addition to the Lasker Award, Cooper’s honors include the Founder’s Award of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine (1966), Sandoz Prize in Immunology (1990), American College of Physicians Science Award (1994), AAI Lifetime Achievement Award (2000), AAI-Dana Foundation Award in Human Immunology Research (2006), Avery-Landsteiner Prize (2008), the Robert Koch Prize (2010)and the Japan Prize (2018).