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UAB microbiologist wins top Czech science honor

December 20, 2007

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Jiri Mestecky, M.D., Ph.D, a University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) professor of microbiology and medicine, has been awarded the 2007 Czech Mind prize.

The annual award is the highest scientific honor in the Czech Republic, and recipients often include Czech nationals working in other countries.

Mestecky came to UAB in 1967 and continues to research and teach about the microbial environment of the gut, mouth and mucosal membranes.

His expertise in mucosal immunology has earned him world acclaim. In recent years Mestecky has become a prominent researcher into a new class of experimental HIV vaccines.

Mestecky said earning the prize is exciting and humbling.

"There are so many great Czech scientists working at home, in France, in Germany and elsewhere," he said. "To be chosen was a very pleasant surprise, and unexpected in many ways."

He points to a 1971 study he had published in the journal Science that helped jump start lab-based exploration of the human immune response involving proteins and other molecules in bodily secretions. Mestecky and his lab focus on a protein called immunoglobulin A, or IgA.

The 1971 Science study spelled out the basic molecular characteristics of IgA, which in later years turned out to be a first step toward convincing many scientists that the mouth is integral to mucosal immunity, Mestecky said.

IgA researchers like Mestecky continue to break ground on a better understanding and new treatment options for deadly conditions like kidney failure, myeloma and AIDS, and for immunizing against a variety of microbial infections.

Mestecky travels the world lecturing on mucosal immunity and talking about his work in UAB's departments of Microbiology and Medicine. Also, he collaborates with researchers at Charles University in Prague, Palacky University in the Eastern Czech city of Olomouc and other institutes around the world.

In addition to Mestecky's prize, six other Czech Mind awards were given out this year. The award jury is made up of scientists, governmental officials and corporate leaders throughout the Czech Republic and Europe.

The prize organizer is the Prague-based firm of Ceska Hlava S.R.O., which manages that nation's science and technology outreach programs in schools and on Czech-language television.

Each Czech Mind award comes with a monetary prize that is funded through donations and non-governmental sponsors, organizers said.

The honor came among several Mestecky received this year. He was given the 2007 Nils Alwall Prize for scientific contributions to the field of renal disease. In March, the International Association for Dental Research honored Mestecky for his expertise in oral biology and mucosal immunity.
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University of Alabama at Birmingham

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