University of Pittsburgh

All plenary sessions will be presented in Alumni Hall’s 7th floor lecture hall.

Mellon Lecture
A Molecular Arms Race: The Immune System versus HIV
11:00 a.m., Friday, 9 October

Pamela J. Björkman, PhD
Max Delbrück Professor of Biology
California Institute of Technology
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Pamela J. Björkman, PhD, is a noted researcher of the three-dimensional structures of immune system proteins. She studies protein structures, their functions, and their interactions with other proteins.

With the help of a synchrotron particle accelerator in Germany, Björkman used X-ray crystallography to determine the 3D structure of a major histocompatibility complex (MHC) protein, HLA-A2, which signals to T lymphocytes whether a cell is healthy or virally infected. She and colleagues found antigen in the binding site of HLA-A2 despite the fact that the protein came from uninfected cells. This finding, which took place during her postgraduate and postdoctoral studies, explains why T cells sometimes mistakenly recognize a self molecule as a foreign antigen, contributing to autoimmune disease. 

After establishing a lab at the California Institute of Technology in 1989, Björkman continued to explore the structural mechanisms of MHC proteins, as well as the therapeutic uses of antibodies and their receptors. Her lab has solved the structure of more than 50 proteins and complexes. She has found several proteins that share amino acid sequences and 3D conformations with MHC proteins but are not immune-system related. After researching viral proteins similar to MHC molecules, she and fellow researchers are currently working to construct antibody-like reagents to combat HIV.     

Björkman received her BA degree in chemistry from the University of Oregon and her PhD in biochemistry from Harvard University. She conducted postdoctoral research at Harvard in the lab of Don C. Wiley, PhD, and at Stanford University in the lab of Mark Davis, PhD.

Björkman received the 2006 L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science award. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.