Dr. Peter Gregersen, who heads the Boas Center for Genomics and Human Genetics at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, will share the academy's Crafoord Prize with Drs. Robert Winchester of Columbia University and Lars Klareskog of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.
Gregersen said he was stunned last week when he received the call from Stockholm advising him of the $600,000 prize.
"Totally unexpected," Gregersen said when asked his reaction to the award. "I was not expecting this at all. It was not on my radar screen."
Gregersen unmasked the genetic mechanisms that underlie a major pathway in the development of rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disease that affects an estimated 1.3 million people in the United States. Nearly three times as many women as men develop the disabling disorder, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition, which means it occurs when the body attacks itself. Turncoat components of the immune system wage war on the joints, skin and sometimes major organs.
"This prize relates to work I did 25, 30 years ago," said Gregersen, who also found that environmental factors play a role. Smoking, he said, is a major risk factor for rheumatoid arthritis because the habit triggers so-called citrullinated proteins to become abundant in the blood.
Derived from the amino acid citrulline, these proteins trigger a vigorous response in people with rheumatoid arthritis, Gregersen said.
When citrullinated proteins are present, the immune system of someone with rheumatoid arthritis releases a flood of autoantibodies -- anti-self antibodies -- that attack the joints and other parts of the body.
Having these proteins in the blood is now considered a powerful target in the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.
Winchester, a professor of pediatrics, pathology and medicine at Columbia, has focused on the genetic susceptibility to autoimmune disease.
He and members of his team have conducted a broad range of studies to explain the mechanisms responsible for autoimmune injury -- how and why the body attacks itself.
Klareskog, meanwhile, was the first scientist to postulate that key mediators of the immune response known as major histocompatibility complex-2 molecules trigger the body's T-cells to launch their assault in the series of unfortunate biological events that result in rheumatoid arthritis.
Named for Swedish scientist Holger Crafoord, who designed the first artificial kidney, the award has been given annually since 1982. Many who have won the honor for achievements in the biosciences have focused on research involving arthritis, according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.