Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Benacerraf emigrated to the U.S. in 1940 to go to school, where he became a doctor. After serving in the U.S. Army Medical Corps at the end of World War II, he turned to medical research, trying to figure out how the body fights off infection — and why some people can’t do that as well as others. He and co-researchers George D. Snell and Jean Dausset discovered specialized protein/sugar complexes on the surface of cells which they called “histocompatibility antigens,” which were organized into what is now called the major histocompatibility complex. Benacerraf found that foreign antigens provoked an immune response only sometimes, so he wanted to figure out why. What he figured out enabled organ transplants. “Dr. Benacerraf’s seminal discoveries about genetic control of the immune system made possible much of what we now know about basic disease processes such as infection, autoimmune disorders and cancer,” said Dr. Edward J. Benz Jr., president of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, where Benacerraf spent most of his career. “His work has shaped everything from organ transplantation to AIDS treatment to, most recently, the development of therapeutic cancer vaccines.” Benacerraf, Snell, and Dausset were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1980. Dr. Benacerraf died August 2 in Boston from pneumonia. He was 90.
From This is True for 7 August 2011