Newest UT Southwestern Nobel Prize winner has many Texas connections

You can go home again—and with a Nobel Prize, too
Dr. Bruce Beutler is recognized by the UT Southwestern community for winning the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

UT Southwestern leaders knew what they were getting when they recruited Bruce Beutler, MD, as the founding director of the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense earlier this year.

After all, Dr. Beutler (pronounced BOYT-ler)—an internationally recognized leader in immunology—completed his early medical training at UT Southwestern. Then, after a brief interlude, he spent another 14 years at the Dallas medical center, making a name for himself in the scientific community with pioneering research on inflammation and the body’s resistance to infectious diseases.

Now, following the Oct. 3 announcement of Dr. Beutler’s sharing of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the rest of the world has a pretty good idea of Dr. Beutler’s accomplishments and abilities as well.

‘Most important years’

The son of a noted physician and researcher, Dr. Beutler graduated from the University of California, San Diego, in 1976 when he was just 18 and received his medical degree from the University of Chicago at the age of 23. He arrived on the UT Southwestern campus in 1981 as an intern in the Department of Internal Medicine and completed his residency at UT Southwestern in neurology.

Following three years at Rockefeller University in New York, he returned to UT Southwestern in 1986 as one of the University’s first Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators and an Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine. He continued at UT Southwestern until 2000. There, he did the groundbreaking research into the lipopolysaccharide (LPS) receptor gene that would ultimately earn him the Nobel Prize. His discoveries have opened the door to scientific advances in many related areas of medicine.

“These were the most important years of my career,” Dr. Beutler said at the time of his recruitment in May 2011. “I was encouraged to pick a single, tough problem in my field and solve it. I chose the problem I considered essential to the field: to find the receptor for lipopolysaccharide. It was a daunting project. But the atmosphere at UT Southwestern was a special one.”

‘Quiet, gentle, thoughtful, and remarkably brilliant’

In 2000, Dr. Beutler left UT Southwestern to join The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, where his father was on the faculty. The younger Dr. Beutler was a professor and later Chair of the Department of Genetics at Scripps. He held dual appointments at both Scripps and UT Southwestern on the day of the prize announcement, which came during his transition to Texas.

In 2011, Dr. Beutler was recruited by Dr. Eugene Frenkel, Professor of Internal Medicine, and others to return once more to the campus where he had spent more than half his medical career. Dr. Frenkel had worked with Dr. Beutler in the 1980s at UT Southwestern and had followed his career over the years.

“His work is so interesting,” Dr. Frenkel says. “You’re dealing with something that’s not easy to understand or explain—your innate immunity. It’s what you’re born with, what you have, and why you’re different than the guy sitting next door.”  

He describes Dr. Beutler as “quiet, gentle, thoughtful, and remarkably brilliant in terms of thinking about and then expressing the serious issues of the problems of the immune system. It’s very important, for instance, in diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, inflammatory and infectious disease, and clearly important in cancer.”

‘Continuing the work we started’

For Dr. Beutler, the return to Dallas and the Nobel Prize is not an end, but rather the next step in a career dedicated to advancing medicine and unlocking the mysteries of science.

“With the new Center for Genetics of Host Defense, I’m looking forward to continuing the work that we started so many years ago at UT Southwestern,” Dr. Beutler says. “It’s an exciting time, and I’m anxious to see where the science leads us next.”

Dr. Beutler and Dr. Jules A. Hoffmann of Strasbourg University’s Institut de Biologie Moléculaire et Cellulaire in France shared half the Nobel Prize for their discovery of receptor proteins that recognize disease-causing agents and activate innate immunity, the first step in the body´s immune response. The other half went to the late Dr. Ralph M. Steinman of Rockefeller University in New York for his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity. Also in 2011, Dr. Beutler was one of three winners of the prestigious Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine.