Emil Raphael Unanue, MD, an internationally renowned immunologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, died on December 16, 2022, surrounded by his family in St. Louis after a two-year battle against glioblastoma. He was 88 years old.
Head of the Department of Pathology and Immunology at the School of Medicine from 1985 to 2006, Unanue built the department into a pre-eminent research powerhouse in immunology, and he did so while making major discoveries about the immune system that transformed the field.
“Emil Unanue was an extraordinary scientist whose work went far beyond his own field of immunobiology and impacted many other biological fields, including cell biology, microbiology, neurobiology, and genetics,” said Richard J. Cote, MD, Edward Mallinckrodt Professor and Director of the Department of Pathology and Immunology. “We have lost a titan of science whose breadth, depth and understanding of life will be impossible to replace. Even though he is gone, his passion for excellence and discovery will continue to drive us to be the best scientists we can be.”
Paul and Ellen Lacy Professor of Pathology and Immunology, Unanue is known for his work in understanding how the immune system identifies fragments of foreign proteins or antigens, a first step in generating an immune response, and how immune system T cells respond. . T cells, key components of the body’s response to infectious disease and cancer, can be harmful when misdirected against the body’s own tissues and can lead to autoimmune diseases. Unanue’s work opened the door to research into therapies for autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, which are caused by misdirected immune responses.
In the 1980s, Unanue’s research team discovered a critical component of how T cells recognize foreign invaders. Previously, scientists had thought that T cells recognized the shapes of intact pathogens, but Unanue showed that they identified parts of pathogens while interacting with another group of immune cells called antigen-presenting cells.
These cells pick up antigens and cut them into fragments or peptides. Unanue and Paul Allen, PhD, now professor emeritus of pathology and immunology at the University of Washington, discovered that antigen-presenting cells bind these peptides to a special group of molecules known as the major histocompatibility complex.
Through his years of invaluable contributions as a researcher, Unanue advanced critical findings that have brought medicine closer to being able to improve the body’s defenses against disease while preventing misdirected immune attacks on the body’s normal components.
“As busy and profoundly successful as he was as a researcher, teaching and mentoring were also very important to him,” said his former colleague Robert D. Schreiber, PhD, Andrew M. and Jane M. Bursky Distinguished Professor and Burski’s director. Center for Human Immunology and Immunotherapy Programs at the University of Washington. “Through the Immunology Graduate Program he created at the university, he helped populate academia and industry with many of the most respected scientists in the field. The impact of him cannot be overstated.”
Unanue has been recognized on many stages throughout his career. His honors include the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award; the Canada Gairdner International Prize, Canada’s highest scientific award; the Robert Koch Gold Medal in Germany; the Sanofi-Institut Pasteur Prize; and the Gerold and Kayla Grodsky Basic Research Scientist Award from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. He also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Association of Immunologists and was an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Medicine.
A native of Havana, Cuba, Unanue graduated from the University of Havana School of Medicine in 1960, one year after Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban government. Wanting to be the architect of his own life, he left Cuba for the United States that year, before Castro imposed travel restrictions on residents.
He then completed a pathology internship at Presbyterian University Hospital in Pittsburgh; a fellowship in pathology at the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla, California, with renowned immunopathologist Frank Dixon; and then a fellowship in immunology at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, where he worked with famed immunologist Brigitte Askonas.
Unanue returned to Scripps and was later recruited by eventual Nobel laureate Baruch Benacerraf to Harvard Medical School. In 1985, he became head of what was then the Department of Pathology at the Washington University School of Medicine, where he went on to define the antigen presentation process in greater detail, with a special focus on type 1 diabetes. YO.
A true Renaissance man, Unanue was also known for his legendary love and knowledge of opera and was a longtime supporter of the St. Louis Opera House, the New York Metropolitan Opera and the Santa Fe Opera.
Unanue is survived by his wife of over 58 years, Marianne; his children, Marie Unanue (Chris Georgen), Rachel Rose (Scott) and David Unanue (Laura); his brother, Alberto Unanue; and six grandchildren.
A celebration of his life will take place in 2023.
Commemorative contributions may be made to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation or the St. Louis Opera House.