Matthew Albert passes a bust of Ilya Mechnikov every day on the way to his office at the Institute Pasteur in Paris. Working in the same building as the man who discovered phagocytosis is "humbling," he says, but the young immunologist shares with the 1908 Nobel Prize winner a fascination with cell death and a fixation on how science can improve the human condition.
As a crystallographer at Brown University, Albert worked on technologies to convert sunlight to electricity. When Raytheon, the developer of Patriot missiles, appropriated the project, Albert decided that a change was in order. "If there was going to be an application for my work, I wanted to be a bit more confident that at the other end someone was benefiting in terms of quality of life." He started an MD/PhD program in immunology at Rockefeller University and Cornell Medical College in New...
Under the direction of Nina Bhardwaj and Robert Darnell, Albert worked on cross presentation, a poorly understood mechanism by which immune cells acquire and present antigen from entities such as cancer cells. His work provided evidence that dendritic cells efficiently present antigens derived from internalized apoptotic cells onto MHC I, and in turn stimulate cytotoxic T lymphocytes.
In 2003, Albert was the first scientist to be recruited by INSERM and the Institute Pasteur through a then new headhunter program, says Chritian Brèchot, chief executive of INSERM. For his part, Albert enjoys the French science culture. "I am happy not to be on a tenure clock, and I feel as if I have a lot more freedom in terms of the risks I am willing to take," he explains.
Last summer, he published what he considers his most adventurous work to date. His group found that just before committing to die, cells generate substrates for peptide presentation by dendritic cells without additional activity of the transporter associated with antigen processing (TAP). Using knockout animals and cell culture, he demonstrated that this pathway allows the dying cell to actively participate in selecting immunologically important antigens.
Seventy years before it was characterized at the cellular level, Mechnikov described apoptosis (natural death) as distinct from necrosis (violent death). Albert says he hopes his scientific hero would appreciate the idea that "death is not an endpoint, but instead is the beginning of an immune response."
Title: Director of Research, INSERM, head of the laboratory of dendritic cell immunobiology, department of immunology, at the Institute Pasteur in Paris, France
1. M.L. Albert et al., "Dendritic cells acquire antigen from apoptotic cells and induce class-I restricted CTLs," Nature, 392:86-9, 1998. (cited in 1,162 papers)
2. N. Blachére et al., "Apoptotic cells deliver processed antigen to dendritic cells for cross-presentation," PloS Biol, 3:e185, 2005.
3. M.L. Albert et al., "Dendritic cell maturation is required for the cross-tolerization of CD8+ T cells," Nat Immunol, 2:1010-7, 2001. (cited in 142 papers)