Ralph Steinman, a New York scientist working on a cure for cancer today won the Nobel Prize for medicine, but he had tragically died of the disease just three days ago.
Ralph Steinman, 68, had been treating himself with a groundbreaking therapy based on his own research into the body’s immune system but died on September 30 after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer.
The Nobel committee at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute said it was aware of Ralph Steinman‘s death – but it appeared that it had not known before making its announcement.
Ralph Steinman’s colleagues from Rockefeller University in New York called it a “bittersweet” honor.
It is likely that Ralph Steinman died without being aware he had won the Nobel Prize for medicine, along with American Bruce Beutler and French Jules Hoffmann.
The Nobel committee does not give its awards posthumously, but has decided to make an exception because of what Secretary General Goran Hansson called a “unique situation”.
“The Nobel Foundation has recognized Ralph Steinman for his seminal discoveries concerning the body’s immune responses,” said Rockefeller University president Marc Tessier-Lavigne.
“But the news is bittersweet, as we also learned this morning from Ralph’s family that he passed a few days ago after a long battle with cancer,” Marc Tessier-Lavigne added.
Rockefeller University said in a statement: “Ralph 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.”
Alexis Steinman, Ralph Steinman’s daughter, indicating that her father had not known on his deathbed of the impending decision in Stockholm, said:
“We are all so touched that our father’s many years of hard work are being recognized with a Nobel Prize.
“He devoted his life to his work and his family and he would be truly honored.”
Bruce Beutler and Jules Hoffmann, who studied the first stages of the body’s immune responses to attack in the 1990s, shared the $1.5million award with Ralph Steinman, originally from Montreal, Canada, whose discovery of dendritic cells in the 1970s is key to understanding the body’s next line of defense against disease.
The Nobel award panel said in a statement in Stockholm: “This year’s Nobel laureates have revolutionized our understanding of the immune system by discovering key principles for its activation.”
Before hearing the news of Ralph Steinman’s death, Lars Klareskog, who chairs the prize-giving panel, said:
“I am very excited about what these discoveries mean.
“I think that we will have new, better vaccines against microbes and that is very much needed now with the increased resistance against antibiotics.”
Bruce Beutler, 53, is based at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.
Luxembourg-born, Jules Hoffmann, 70, conducted much of his work in Strasbourg.
They were supposed to share half the 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.46million) of prize-money.
The rest should have gone to Ralph Steinman, though the unusual circumstances leave its fate now in some doubt.
Bruce Beutler said he had learned of his prize by e-mail and had to search online to make sure it was true:
“I finally found it on Google News. My name was all over the place.”
Of his work, Bruce Beutler said, it “might lead to new treatments for inflammatory and auto-immune disease and possibly new treatments for other kinds of diseases as well”.
The work of all three scientists has been pivotal to the development of improved types of vaccines against infectious diseases and novel approaches to fighting cancer.
The research has helped lay the foundations for a new wave of “therapeutic vaccines” that stimulate the immune system to attack tumors.
Better understanding of the complexities of the immune system has also given clues for treating inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, where the components of the self-defense system end up attacking the body’s own tissues.