How Emory’s Dr. Max Cooper’s discovery in chickens may have saved your life

Emory University recently established an annual $100,000 prize in his honor
Dr. Max Cooper award announcement on Wednesday September 27, 2023. (

Credit: Becky Stein Photography

Credit: Becky Stein Photography

Dr. Max Cooper award announcement on Wednesday September 27, 2023. (

Sixty years ago, Dr. Max Cooper lay awake, full of self-doubt.

Long years of study and training brought Cooper from his native Mississippi by way of New Orleans, and San Francisco to a room at the Gopher Motel in Minneapolis.

It was a July 1963 evening, and Cooper, a young pediatrician and scientist was set to begin more advanced study under Dr. Robert Good, an esteemed immunologist at the University of Minnesota.

“I was terrified and even more so when I went to tell my mentor the next morning I was ready to go and then I asked, ‘What do I do’?” said Cooper, smiling and laughing softly at his office at Emory University, recalling those earlier days. Cooper, who is 90, joined Emory in 2008 and is a professor with the Emory Vaccine Center and Emory University School of Medicine.

“He told me to ‘Do things you told me about that you were interested in that convinced me to have you come here,’” he recalled.

A young Dr. Max Cooper.
Provided by Emory University

Credit: cust

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Credit: cust

Cooper pushed through his fears and got to work in an area of deep interest. Why were some of his young patients especially vulnerable to infections? Why couldn’t some fend off a simple fever blister that would eventually overwhelm their bodies and kill them? He was on a quest to better understand fundamental questions about our immune system.

What happened next over the coming months and years and countless hours in labs forever changed our understanding of the human immune system. Cooper and researcher Dr. Jacques Miller discovered two distinct cell lineages in the adaptive immune system, now known as T cells and B cells. They determined the two distinct types of white blood cells play separate but complementary roles in defending against infections.

Their discovery of two essential cell types in the immune system has paved the way for modern medical advances. Those include monoclonal antibody treatments, which are laboratory-made proteins that mimic the immune system’s ability to fight off harmful diseases and viruses, and immunotherapy, which is a treatment that uses a person’s own immune system to fight cancer.

Emory University recently established a prize in honor of Cooper, the annual “Emory Max Cooper Prize in Immunology,” is a $100,000-prize that will reward researchers contributing to the advancement of immunology. Available to national and international candidates across the spectrum of immunology, the first prize will be awarded in the fall of 2024.

Working with chickens in the 1960s, Cooper showed that an organ in birds called the bursa of Fabricius is where B cells mature. Later, Cooper and colleagues showed B cells develop in humans’ bone marrow and produce antibodies in response to viruses and bacteria. These antibodies tag and destroy the germs. After they’re made, antibodies usually stay in our bodies in case we have to fight the same germ again. That’s why someone who gets sick with a disease, like chickenpox, usually won’t get sick from it again.

T cells mature in the thymus gland and help alert B cells to the presence of pathogens; they can also detect and kill infected or abnormal cells. Researcher Miller showed that the thymus, previously thought to be a useless organ in humans, is one of the most important organs and essential for immune function. Cooper and Miller have worked independently but have built on each other’s discoveries.

Cooper said his life-long journey of learning and discovery continues to amaze him.

“Once you learn something new, it’s such a rush,” said Cooper. “It doesn’t have to be something totally new for everybody. If it’s totally new for you, you still get that thrill.”

Cooper was born in rural Mississippi, his mother was a teacher and his father was a mathematician and high school principal. His childhood was filled with exploring the outdoors, stargazing, and an abundance of books in the home. He read a lot, at least a book every day.

Cooper told The Journal of Clinical Investigation, “I had my full quota of mischievousness along with getting instilled with a set of principles and a love for learning and reading that have made an immense difference in my life. One of my teachers in high school once told me, ‘Max, if you hadn’t had the parents you have, I think you would have ended up in jail.’”

Tragically, when Cooper was a high school senior, his older brother died in a car accident. His brother had named him as a beneficiary in his life insurance policy, and Cooper used the money to pursue medicine.

He started at a community college on a football scholarship.

After Minnesota, Cooper went on to a 40-year-long stint at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Dr. Max Cooper poses for a photo in a research laboratory next to his office at Emory University School of Medicine on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. Cooper, a pediatrician and professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, is being honored in the category “Medical Science and Medicinal Science” for research that identified the cellular building blocks of the immune system as we understand it today.ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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Today, soft-spoken and modest, Cooper continues to work full-time.

A researcher requires patience because answers to complex problems do not come quickly or easily. Cooper has a reputation for being a kind leader who always keeps his door open to listen, help, and lead.

“He’s amazingly easygoing,” said Jonathan Rast, a senior scientist at Emory University School of Medicine who works with Cooper. “But he’s also quite intense in some ways. He’s very focused and very careful. It’s great to just be around him and learn from him, how precise he is and trying to be sure that things are as they are and there are not alternative explanations.”

At 90, Cooper remains “very engaged,” said Rast.

“He is here all the time,” said Rast. We are discussing things every day.”

Cooper’s findings provided a framework for understanding how white blood cells normally combat infections and how they go awry to produce leukemia, lymphomas, and autoimmune diseases.

Numerous awards have recognized Cooper’s discoveries. In 2019, Cooper received the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, a distinguished honor recognizing researchers who make major advances in medical science.

Despite these advances, a key question remains: how did these sophisticated defense mechanisms come to be?

Today, Cooper leads a team studying lampreys, an early offshoot of the evolutionary tree, before sharks and fish. These snake-like creatures, which still exist, have no jaws but instead have a sucking disc around the mouth. They have been on earth between 400 and 450 million years and yet, they have sophisticated immune systems.

Cooper and his team are essentially going back in time. Studying these creatures provides a glimpse into where the human immune system came from and how it evolved, which ultimately might help us better understand how our immune system works, and ways to treat diseases.

Rast said the Cooper Award will highlight, “the kind of things Max is really interested in.”

“He’s kind of a unique scientist in the sense his origins are very medical, he’s an MD,” said Rast, “He’s always had a wide view of what’s important, and hopefully this prize will pick out people who are making really fundamental advances.”