Japan Prizes Honor Immune System and Computer Science Research

TOKYO—The minds behind a breakthrough drug and a basic but ubiquitous operating software share the laurels of this year's Japan Prize, announced here today.

For their work in taking a basic biomedical discovery all the way through to a clinical therapy, Tadamitsu Kishimoto and Toshio Hirano, both of Osaka University, will get the bioscience and medical science prize. The pair identified interleukin 6, a protein produced by white blood cells, and unraveled its functions in the immune system, partly using tailor-bred transgenic mice. They determined interleukin 6's role in rheumatoid arthritis, and to treat the disorder they helped develop a drug that blocks the molecule's activity. Introduced in 2008, the drug is already available in 90 countries. At today's prize announcement, Kishimoto predicted bigger things to come. He explained that interleukin 6 has a cell-signaling role in many autoimmune diseases, such as other forms of arthritis, and is also involved in stimulating growth factors in prostate, bone marrow, and other cancers. All these interleukin 6 functions are potential therapeutic targets. "We're extremely delighted our research is contributing to the relief of diseases," he said.

Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie have won the information and communications prize for having developed the UNIX computer operating system in the 1960s and '70s while at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. UNIX set new standards for simplicity and ease of porting to different computing platforms and is now the operating system for everything from smart phones to supercomputers. The source code was also distributed to users so they could contribute improvements, marking the beginning of the open systems concept. Thompson is now at Google Inc.; Ritchie is retired. Thompson, also in Tokyo today, said that they had been repeatedly surprised by the ever-widening adoption of UNIX over the past 40 years. "At no time could I have predicted what would happen with UNIX," he said.

Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, chair of the Japan Prize Foundation, explained that they select winners based not only on fundamental scientific advances but also on "how the inventions and discoveries contribute to the development of society."

The winners in each category will share $600,000 and get commemorative medals at an April ceremony in Tokyo.

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