Avrion Mitchison

Founding Director, 1989 - 1996

First Scientific Director of the DRFZ

Avrion Mitchison from London became the first scientific director of the DRFZ in 1989. During a time of changes in the early years of German reunification, he helped the newly founded DRFZ to gain international prominence. As an internationally recognized expert in immunological tolerance, immune regulation and immunogenetics, he established the research field of immunology of rheumatic diseases.

Avrion Mitchison:

Creative ldeas and elegant experiments not only make the scientist's work exciting, but they are also the essential logical starting point for advances in the treatment and prevention of disease.

Scientific research

As a PhD student, Avrion Mitchison studied how immune cells behave during transplantation. He showed that immune cells with antibody-like properties, rather than antibodies themselves, are responsible for transplant rejection. He thus identified the cellular basis of the immune system’s violent reaction against transplant antigens – a major problem in organ transplantation.

Soon after, the cooperation of antibody-producing B lymphocytes and T lymphocytes, which mediate cellular immunity, was described. Mitchison showed that the immune system can respond to different amounts of a foreign antigen – e.g. an infection or a transplant – with positive, i.e. eliminating and rejecting, or with negative, i.e. suppressing immune reactions. He recognized that B and T lymphocytes have different structures, so-called haptens and carriers, on the antigens foreign to them.

In chronic inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, it is precisely these reactions of the immune system that are directed against the body’s own structures. Mitchison thus brought decisive experience in researching rheumatic diseases to the DRFZ. In a completely new approach at the time, he transferred findings on the immune system’s handling of pathogens to the mechanisms underlying rheumatic inflammation. He thus defined the goal of research at the DRFZ: the development of novel, preferably curative therapies by eliminating the causative dysregulations of the immune system.

Avrion Mitchison is considered one of the fathers of modern immunology.

Academic career 

Avrion Mitchison (*1928) studied zoology at Oxford University, where he received his doctorate in 1952 under the supervision of Sir Peter B. Medawar, who later won the Nobel Prize. After a research stay in the USA, he headed a research group at the National Institute for Medical Research in London and was Jodrell Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at University College London from 1971 to 1991.

In 1989, Avrion Mitchison accepted the appointment as the first Scientific Director of the DRFZ Berlin.

After his retirement at the end of 1996, Avrion Mitchison went back to the Medical School of University College in London. Today he is Professor Emeritus there and lives in London.

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