Professor Brigitte Askonas

Born 1st April, 1923 (Vienna, Austria) - Died 9th January, 2013 (London, United Kingdom)

Askonas co-developed one of the first systems for the cloning of antibody-forming B cells in vivo, some of the earliest monoclonal antibodies. She was also one of the first scientists to isolate and clone virus specific T lymphocytes, laying the foundation for defining different influenza sub-sets and improving vaccines.

(Photo credit: Anne-Katrin Purkiss, Wellcome Images B0007461)

Family

The daughter of Czech parents, Brigitte Askonas, widely known as Ita, was born in Vienna. Aged 15, Askonas fled with her family from Vienna in March 1938 shortly after the Anschluss that united Austria with Germany. The family settlied in Canada in 1940. Both Askonas's father and brother owned knitting mills in several European countries and her mother, a graduate in fine arts, was an art collector. From an early age Askonas had an interest in languages, art, literature, nature and biological books as well as classical music, but until mid-way through university had little idea what career she wanted to pursue.

Education

Askonas spent two years at Wellesley College, Massachusetts and then attended McGill University, Montreal, from which she graduated in biochemistry in 1944. She was then inspired by David Lansboroough Thomas, Professor of Biochemistry and Dean of Science at McGill University ,to pursue a doctorate. This she began at the School of Biochemistry at Cambridge University in 1949 under the supervision of Malcolm Dixon. She completed her doctorate in 1952, having worked on muscle enzymes. During her time in the department she came into contact with Margaret Stephenson and Dorothy Needham, who were among the first four women to be elected to the Royal Society. They taught her that good science gets recognition regardless of the gender of the scientist.

Career

Before undertaking her doctorate, Askonas worked at the Allan Memorial Institute of Psychiatry, associated with McGill University. Her project was to study the biochemistry of dementia. In 1952 Askonas joined the National Institute for Medical Research where she worked for 36 years, the last of them as head of the immunology division. Her initial work at the Institute was on the biosynthesis of milk proteins. This work inspired her to investigate the origin and synthesis of antibodies and to study the role of macrophages. Subsequently she worked on the role of T-lymphocytes in infection, especially those connected with influenza and respiratory syncytial viruses, a disease that afflicts infants.

Achievements

In 1973 Askonas was elected as a member to the Royal Society based on the contributions she made to the understanding of the origin and synthesis of antibodies. One of her major achievements, was the cloning of memory-B cells in vivo with Brian Wright and Alan Williamson. These cells represented some of the first monoclonal antibodies ever produced. Her work also clarified the role of macrophages and T cells in the immune system's defence against infections, laying the foundation for understanding how T lymphocytes detect foreign invaders in the body. Askonas's research also established the principle that cytolytic T cells, which kill cells infected with viruses, had the ability to recognise multiple subtypes of viruses. This contrasted antibodies which recognise a single virus subtype. The principle she established is today vital to the development of new vaccines against the infections that cause HIV/Aids, malaria, TB and pandemic influenza.

Brigitte Askonas: timeline of key events

Askonas co-developed one of the first systems for the cloning of antibody-forming B cells in vivo, some of the earliest monoclonal antibodies. She was also one of the first scientists to isolate and clone virus specific T lymphocytes, laying the foundation for defining different influenza sub-sets and improving vaccines. 1923-04-01T00:00:00+00001938-03-01T00:00:00+00001942-01-01T00:00:00+00001945-01-01T00:00:00+00001949-10-01T00:00:00+00001952-01-01T00:00:00+0000BA Askonas, AR Williamson, Nature, 216 (1967), 264–67; ZL Awdeh, et al., Nature, 219 (1968), 66–67; BA Askonas et al., PNAS USA, 67 (1970), 1398–1403; ZL Awdeh et al, Biochemestry Journal, 116 (1970), 241–48; BA Askonas et al., Bull. Soc. Chim. Biol, 50 (1968), 1113–28.1967-01-01T00:00:00+0000Brigette Askonas, a Canadian biochemist, Alan Williamson, a British immunologist, and Brian Wright cloned B cells in vivo using spleen cells from mice immunised with haptenated carrier antigen. BA Askonas, AR Williamson, BEG Wright, 'Selection of a single antibody-forming cell clone and its propagation in syngeneic mice', PNAS, 67/3 (1970), 1398-14031970-11-01T00:00:00+00001973-01-01T00:00:00+00001976-01-01T00:00:00+0000The work was conducted by a team led by Brigette Askonas. It was published in AJ McMichael, A Ting, HJ Zweerink, BA Askonas, 'HLA restriction of cell-mediated lysis of influenza virus-infected human cells', Nature, 270/5637 (1977), 524-6; AJ McMichael, BA Askonas, 'Influenza virus-specific cytotoxic T cells in man; induction and properties of the cytotoxic cell', European Journal Immunolology, 8 (1978), 705-11.1977-01-01T00:00:00+0000The experiments, carried out in mice by Brigette Askobas and her colleagues, showed that T cells transferred into RSV infected mice showed that the T cells could protect against viral replication, eliminating residual virus from immunosuppressed mice. It also showed that T cells could at the same time cause enhanced lung disease that could be leathal. MJ Cannon, EJ Stott, G Taylor, BA Askonas, 'Clearance of persistent respiratory syncytial virus infections in immunodeficient mice following transfer of primed T cells', Immunology, 62 (1987), 133-38; MJ Cannon, PJ Openshaw, BA Askonas, 'Cytotoxic T cells clear virus but augment lung pathology in mice infected with respiratory syncytial virus', Journal Experimental Medicine, 168/3 (1988), 1163-8.1987-04-30T00:00:00+00002007-01-01T00:00:00+00002007-01-01T00:00:00+0000Askonas co-developed one of the first systems for the cloning of antibody-forming B cells in vivo, some of the earliest monoclonal antibodies. She was also one of the first scientists to isolate and clone virus specific T lymphocytes, laying the foundation for defining different influenza sub-sets and improving vaccines. 2013-01-09T00:00:00+0000
Date Event People Places
1 Apr 1923Brigitte Askonas was born in Vienna, AustriaAskonasVienna
March 1938Askonas family left AustriaAskonasMcHill University
1942 - 1942Askonas studied biochemistry at McGill UniversityAskonas 
1 Jan 1945 - 1 Jan 1945Askonas worked on the biochemistry of dementia with Karl SternAskonas, Karl SternMcGill University
1949 - 1949Askonas completed doctorate on biochemistry of the muscle at Cambridge UniversityAskonasCambridge University
1952Askonas joined that National Institute of Medical Research in Mill HillAskonas 
1967 - 1967Brigitte Askonas and colleagues demonstrated that a single antibody-forming cell produces a single type of antibodyAskonas, Williamson, AwdehNational Institute for Medical Research
November 1970Means developed for cloning B cells that produce single antibodies with known specificityAskonas, Williamson, WrightNational Institute for Medical Research
1973Brigette Askonas elected Fellow of the Royal SocietyAskonas 
1976Askonas became head of the Division of Immunology at National Institute of Medical ResearchAskonas 
1977 - 1977Cytolytic T cells shown to recognise multiple subtypes of viruses, including influenza virusesMcMichael, Ting, Zweerink, AskonasNational Institute for Medical Research
1987 - 1987Mice experiments showed T cells to be double-edged sword in clearing persistent infections with respiratory syncytial virusCannon, Stott, Taylor, Askonas, OpenshawNational Institute for Medical Research
2007Brigette Askonas made foreign associate of US National Academy of SciencesAskonas 
2007Askonas awarded Robert Koch medal for her life-long contribution to immunologyAskonas 
9 Jan 2013Brigitte Askonas died in London, United KingdomAskonasLondon, United Kingdom

1 Apr 1923

Brigitte Askonas was born in Vienna, Austria

Mar 1938

Askonas family left Austria

1942 - 1944

Askonas studied biochemistry at McGill University

1 Jan 1945 - 1 Jan 1949

Askonas worked on the biochemistry of dementia with Karl Stern

1949 - 1952

Askonas completed doctorate on biochemistry of the muscle at Cambridge University

1952

Askonas joined that National Institute of Medical Research in Mill Hill

1967 - 1970

Brigitte Askonas and colleagues demonstrated that a single antibody-forming cell produces a single type of antibody

Nov 1970

Means developed for cloning B cells that produce single antibodies with known specificity

1973

Brigette Askonas elected Fellow of the Royal Society

1976

Askonas became head of the Division of Immunology at National Institute of Medical Research

1977 - 1978

Cytolytic T cells shown to recognise multiple subtypes of viruses, including influenza viruses

1987 - 1988

Mice experiments showed T cells to be double-edged sword in clearing persistent infections with respiratory syncytial virus

2007

Brigette Askonas made foreign associate of US National Academy of Sciences

2007

Askonas awarded Robert Koch medal for her life-long contribution to immunology

9 Jan 2013

Brigitte Askonas died in London, United Kingdom