Swiss immunologist and pathologist who with Australian immunologist and pathologist Peter C Doherty was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1996 for their discovery of how virus-infected cells are recognized by the cellular immune system.
The immune system of a person protects them from infection using different types of white blood cells or lymphocytes. These have to destroy an invading organism, while avoiding damage to any healthy cells. This is accomplished using a highly developed recognition system that distinguishes between healthy and infected cells. Zinkernagel and Doherty were studying the role of T lymphocytes (T cells) in the response of the cellular immune system in mice infected by a virus that caused meningitis. They mixed T cells taken from mice infected by the virus and mixed them together with virus-infected cells taken from different mice. They found that the T cells would only kill infected cells taken from the same strain of mouse that the T cells were originally removed from. They correctly reasoned that the cellular immune system would have to recognize both the virus-infected cells and the correct variant of the normal cells of the host mouse, known as major histocompatability antigens, before it would destroy the infected cells. This important role of the major histocompatability antigens in the immune response mechanism had not been realized before.
Zinkernagel was born in Basel, Switzerland. He studied for his MD degree at the University of Basel, which he obtained in 1970. Zinkernagel received his PhD from the Australian National University, Canberra, in 1975. He was employed as a visiting research fellow at the John Curtin School of Medical Research at Canberra from 1973 until 1975. He became an associate professor at the University of Zürich, Switzerland, in 1979 and became a full professor there in 1988. He was appointed head of the Institute of Experimental Immunology at the University of Zürich in 1992.