Nobel awardee for medicine died 3 days before, panel in dilemma


Canadian-born Ralph Steinman, 68, who has been named winner of the 2011 Nobel prize for medicine on Monday had, in fact, died three days before and the foundation which cannot award posthumous is in quandary over the news that reached them bit late.

Ironically, Steinman was being treated based on his own research into the body’s immune system before he died on Friday after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

The former scientist from the Rockefeller University in New York won the award along with Bruce Beutler of the United States and Jules Hoffmann of France.

The Nobel Committee secretary general Goran Hansson said it is a “unique situation, because he died hours before the decision was made.” The panel said it would not name a substitute winner.

The institution said in a statement: “Steinman passed away on September 30. He was 68. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago, and his life was extended using a dendritic-cell based immunotherapy of his own design.”

Steinman, originally from Canada, worked on dendritic cells in the 1970s on the immune system of the human body. “This year’s Nobel laureates have revolutionized our understanding of the immune system by discovering key principles for its activation,” the announcement from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute said.

Ralph Steinman discovered, in 1973, a new cell type that he called the dendritic cell. “He speculated that it could be important in the immune system and went on to test whether dendritic cells could activate T cells, a cell type that has a key role in adaptive immunity and develops an immunologic memory against many different substances. In cell culture experiments, he showed that the presence of dendritic cells resulted in vivid responses of T cells to such substances. These findings were initially met with skepticism but subsequent work by Steinman demonstrated that dendritic cells have a unique capacity to activate T cells,” said Nobel prize panel’s statement.

Ralph M. Steinman was born in 1943 in Montreal, Canada, where he studied biology and chemistry at McGill University. After studying medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, USA, he received his MD in 1968.

He has been affiliated with Rockefeller University in New York since 1970, has been professor of immunology at this institution since 1988, and is also director of its Center for Immunology and Immune Diseases. He died on Friday, Sept. 30, three before the announcement of the honour was made.


The other two scientists Beutler, 53, from the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California and Luxembourg-born Hoffmann, 70, did his research in Strasbourg — will share half of the 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.46 million) of prize-money. The rest won by Steinman may not be given to him but the Nobel prize panel said it would decide what to do with the prize money later.

Bruce A. Beutler was born in 1957 in Chicago and received his MD from the University of Chicago in 1981. He worked as a scientist at Rockefeller University in New York and the University of Texas in Dallas, where he discovered the LPS receptor. Since 2000 he has been professor of genetics and immunology at The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, USA.

Jules A. Hoffmann was born in Echternach, Luxembourg in 1941. He studied at the University of Strasbourg in France, where he obtained his PhD in 1969. After postdoctoral training at the University of Marburg, Germany, he returned to Strasbourg, where he headed a research laboratory from 1974 to 2009.

He has also served as director of the Institute for Molecular Cell Biology in Strasbourg and during 2007-2008 as President of the French National Academy of Sciences, said a statement.

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