Georges Köhler Biography (1946-1995)


Born in Munich, in what was then occupied Germany, on April 17, 1946, GeorgesJean Franz Köhler attended the University of Freiburg, where he obtained his Ph.D. in biology in 1974. From there he set off to Cambridge Universityin England, to work as a postdoctoral fellow for two years at the British Medical Research Council's laboratories. At Cambridge, Köhler worked underDr. César Milstein, an Argentinean-born researcher with whom Köhler would eventually share the Nobel Prize. At the time, Milstein, who was Köhler's senior by 19 years, was a distinguished immunologist, and he actively encouraged Köhler in his research interests. Eventually, it was while working in the Cambridge laboratory that Köhler discovered the hybridoma technique.

Antibodies are produced by human plasma cells in response to any threateningand harmful bacterium, , or tumor cell. The body forms a specific antibody against each antigen; and César Milstein has told the New York Times that the potential number of different antigens may reach "well over a million." Therefore, for researchers working to combat diseases like cancer, anunderstanding of how antibodies could be harnessed for a possible cure was of great interest. And although scientists knew the benefits of producing antibodies, until Köhler and Milstein published their findings, there was noknown technique for maintaining the long-term culture of antibody-forming plasma cells.

Köhler's interest in the subject had been aroused years earlier, when hehad become intrigued by the work of Dr. Michael Potter (1924- ) of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. In 1962 Potter had induced myelomas, or plasma-cell tumors in mice, and others had discovered how to keep those tumors growing indefinitely in culture. Potter showed that plasma tumor cells were both immortal and able to create an unlimited number of identical antibodies. The only drawback was that there seemed no way to make the cells produce a certain type of antibody. Because of this, Köhler wantedto initiate a cloning experiment that would fuse plasma cells able to producethe desired antibodies with the "immortal" myeloma cells. With Milstein's blessing, Köhler began his experiment.

For several weeks after he made the hybrid cells, Köhler put off testingthe outcome of his experiment for fear of failure. But disappointment turnedto joy when Köhler discovered his test had been a success: Astoundingly, his hybrid cells were making pure antibodies against the test antigen. Theresult was dubbed "monoclonal antibodies." For his contribution to medical science, Köhler--who in 1977 had relocated to Switzerland to do research at the Basel Institute for Immunology--was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicinein 1984.

The implications of Köhler's discovery were immense. In the early 1980sKöhler's discovery had led scientists to identify various lymphocytes, or white blood cells. Among the kinds discovered were the T-4 lymphocytes, thecells destroyed by AIDS. Monoclonal antibodies have also improved tests for hepatitis B and streptococcal infections by providing guidance in selecting appropriate antibiotics, and they have aided in the research on thyroid disorders, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and inherited brain disorders. More significantly, Köhler's work has ledto advances in research that can harness monoclonal antibodies into certain drugs and toxins that fight cancer, but would cause damage in their own right.Researchers are also using monoclonal antibodies to identify antigens specific to the surface of cancer cells so as to develop tests to detect the spreadof cancerous cells in the body.

Despite the significance of the discovery, which has also resulted in vast amounts of research funds for many research laboratories, for Köhler and Milstein--who never patented their discovery--there was little remuneration. In fact, during the years following the discovery until they won the Nobel Prize, Köhler received only a single honorary doctorate. Following the award, however, he and Milstein, together with Michael Potter, were name winnersof the Lasker Medical Research Award.

In 1985, Köhler moved back to his hometown of Freiburg, Germany, to assume the directorship of the Max Planck Institute for Immune Biology. He died on March 1, 1995.

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