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Michal Schwartz, (born January 1, 1950, Tel Aviv, Israel), Israeli neuroimmunologist who carried out pioneering research on the relationship between the brain and the immune system and whose groundbreaking research on Alzheimer disease helped to overturn the long-standing notion that immunity should be suppressed in chronic neurodegenerative disease.
Schwartz earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry (1972) from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a doctorate in immunology (1977) from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. In 1980, following a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan, where she studied nerve regeneration, Schwartz returned to the Weizmann Institute, becoming a senior scientist in the department of neurobiology and, in 1998, a full professor. In 2016 she held the Maurice and Ilse Katz Professorial Chair in Neuroimmunology.
At the Weizmann Institute, Schwartz focused her studies on the intersection of immunology and neuroscience. In the 1980s, when she began her investigations, it was widely thought that immune cells were prevented from entering the brain by the blood-brain barrier, causing the brain to be “immune privileged,” or free from harmful effects produced by infiltrating immune cells, including inflammation. Hence, immune suppression was considered critical to the successful treatment of brain diseases and disorders. Schwartz, however, was skeptical that the brain operated independently of the immune system. In the early 1990s, she pioneered a new area of brain immunity research by introducing the idea that the immune system helps the brain and the mind.
She discovered that components of the immune system known as macrophages and T cells are required for spinal cord repair. She subsequently developed the concept of protective autoimmunity, in which adaptive immune cells, including CD4+ T cells involved in the recognition of self-antigens (autoimmunity), supported brain function, helped to repair damaged or diseased neural tissue, and thereby played a critical role in maintaining brain plasticity. Schwartz further found that immune cells in the brain support neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons), and she identified the site and underlying mechanism through which beneficial immune cells were recruited to injured spinal cord tissue to facilitate neuronal repair.
In later work Schwartz investigated the possibility of immunotherapies such as PD-1 blockers, a type of cancer immunotherapy, to treat neurodegenerative diseases. In 2016 she and colleagues showed that the drugs were able to arrest Alzheimer disease pathology and partially reverse the cognitive loss associated with disease, evidenced by the clearance of amyloid-beta plaques—sticky protein aggregates that impair brain function and contribute to the progressive degeneration of memory and cognitive abilities in Alzheimer disease—from the brains of affected mice. The findings indicated that the immune response plays a critical role in repairing the brain and created new therapeutic opportunities in Alzheimer disease. That same year, Schwartz identified a link between certain neurodevelopmental disorders and disruptions in the maternal immune system during pregnancy, wherein the timing of immune disruption had a critical influence on fetal brain development.
Schwartz was recognized with numerous honours throughout her career, including the ARVO (Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, Inc.) Friedenwald Award (2002) and the Blumberg Outstanding Medical Research Scientist Prize (2015). In 2014 she was elected president of the International Society of Neuroimmunology and was made an honorary member of the World Immunopathology Organization.
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