Akiko Iwasaki, PhD, Receives the 2022 Lupus Insight Prize
In June 2022, the Lupus Research Alliance (LRA) awarded its Lupus Insight Prize to Akiko Iwasaki, PhD, for her discovery of the link between endogenous retroviruses and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Dr. Iwasaki, who is a Sterling Professor of Immunobiology and a professor of dermatology, epidemiology, and molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale University, has also been a principal investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) since 2013. She was elected a member of the HHMI Council in 2021.
Dr. Iwasaki’s main focus has been on the mechanisms of immune defense against viruses at the mucosal surfaces and the development of mucosal vaccine strategies; her turn to lupus research has been more recent. Her seminal discovery, for which she received the LRA prize, demonstrated that endogenous retroviruses generate B cells that produce immune proteins targeting the body’s own tissues. She and her team also found that endogenous retroviruses impel neutrophils to release spiderweb-like structures known as NETS, which promote inflammation in SLE.
During the pandemic, Dr. Iwasaki and her team began delving into the relationship between autoimmunity and long COVID, and she is currently the co-lead investigator of the Yale LISTEN study, with Harlan Krumholz, MD, SM, the Harold H. Hines Jr., professor of medicine (cardiology) and professor of investigative medicine and public health at Yale.
Dr. Iwasaki received her PhD from the University of Toronto and her postdoctoral training from the National Institutes of Health. Her first focus in the sciences was physics and math, but during an introductory immunology course her senior year in college, “I fell in love with immunology,” she says.
“What attracts me is that it is this beautiful system—it’s like an orchestra inside of your body and every cell is equipped with different tools and they have to ‘make the music’ in a way that makes sense to fight against infection,” she says. But when that system goes awry, it creates discordance, if you will, that informs the core of Dr. Iwasaki’s work.
In recognition of her wide-ranging research—probing the mechanisms of protection provided by memory T cells within the mucosal organs; the effects of temperature on the innate immune responses to viruses; and adaptive immunity to viruses among other explorations—she has garnered multiple appointments and awards. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2018, to the National Academy of Medicine in 2019, and to the European Molecular Biology Organization in 2021.