Ceppellini Lecturer 2019 – Professor Pamela Bjorkman

On behalf of the EFI Scientific Committee by Prof Katharina Fleischhauer (Chair)

Each year at the annual EFI Conference, a scientist who has made substantial contributions to the field of Immunogenetics is honored by the Society and invited to present their work in the form of the Ceppellini Lecture. The Lecture is named in honor of Ruggero Ceppellini (1917-1988), the Italian geneticist who greatly influenced the HLA field. The first Ceppellini Lecture was delivered in 1988 by the late founder of EFI, Jon van Rood. Over the past five years, it has been held by Lorenzo Moretta (2018), John Kappler (2017), Effie Petersdorf (2016), Frans Claas (2015), and Marco Colonna (2014). A complete list of Ceppellini Lecture Awardees can be found on the EFI website (http://www.efiweb.eu/awards/the-ceppellini-lecture.html).

This year’s Ceppellini Lecture was delivered by Pamela Bjorkman, Professor for Biology at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator, at the Annual EFI Conference in Lisbon on May 08, 2019. Pamela’s work is well-known to everybody in the H&I field, given the fundamental importance of the crystal structure of peptide-MHC molecules she solved back in 1987. Pamela obtained her PhD in Biochemistry from Harvard Medical School in 1984, working in the lab of Don Wiley where she remained as a postdoc to complete her seminal work on the HLA-A2 crystallography, and then moved on to Marc Davis’ lab in Stanford to study the structure and function of T cell receptors recognizing HLA molecules. Since 1989, she has been Faculty member at Caltech, first as Associate and since 1998 as tenured Full Professor, and was additionally appointed HHMI investigator in 1999.

Building on her experience in structural biology and X-ray crystallography gained in her early MHC work, Pamela has since then studied different proteins involved in immune recognition, including MHC-related proteins such as the human homeostatic iron regulator protein HFE and its interactions with the transferrin receptor for iron uptake. More recently, she has used her expertise to make seminal contributions to the development of improved antibodies for the neutralization of viral agents including HIV. She is author of 211 peer-reviewed publications with a Scopus h-index of 73 and over 24.000 citations, and received numerous Awards including the Gairdner Foundation International Award in 1994, the Max Planck Research Award in 2002 and the Rose Payne Distinguished Scientist Award from the American Society for Histocompatibility and Immunogenetics in 2004.

In her Ceppellini Lecture, Pamela started by recalling her early work on solving the HLA-A2 crystal structure. She took the audience through the journey of initial uncertainty and concern about the meaning of the dense structure that co-crystallized inevitably in her experiments, and that turned out to be the peptide in the HLA antigen binding groove, now commonly ascertained knowledge to be found in all immunology textbooks. Pamela then beautifully made the bridge to her subsequent work on the structurally related HFE protein and on antiviral antibodies, illustrating similarities and differences with the MHC that could be exploited to gain new insights into functional properties. She impressively reminded us of the open-mindedness, courage and hard work it takes to make truly new discoveries, and of the vision required to build on previous achievements for breaking new ground in related fields. Pamela Bjorkman’s Ceppellini Lecture was an excitingly instructive treat not only for the younger generation, but for the H&I Community at large.

Katharina Fleischhauer – on behalf of the EFI Scientific Committee