German immunologist who was awarded a Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1984 for his work on immunity and the discovery of a technique for producing highly specific monoclonal antibodies.
Köhler was born in Munich and educated at Freiburg University. In 1971 he moved to the Basel Institute in Switzerland, where he gained his PhD and began to develop his interest in antibodies and their production as part of the normal immune response. In particular, he became fascinated with the enormous range of antibodies a single animal can produce.
Köhler moved to Cambridge, England, in 1974 where he began his collaboration with molecular biologist César Milstein. Within a year, the work for which they were to share the Nobel Prize had been completed. Köhler revolutionized the method by which antibodies for research were produced, a process which had previously been slow and unreliable, and requiring large numbers of animals. He took lymphocytes from an immunized mouse and fused them to tumour cells, resulting in a limitless population of cloned cells that could produce a pure ‘monoclonal’ antibody of known specificity.
At first neither Köhler nor Milstein appreciated the enormous commercial significance of their discovery; no patents were applied for, and Köhler returned to Switzerland in 1976 to pursue his original interest in normal antibody synthesis. By 1980 the monoclonal antibody technique was being used in laboratories around the world. In 1985 Köhler became director of the Max Planck Institute for Immune Biology, in Freiburg, where he continued his research until his death.
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