msnbc.com news services
updated 10/3/2011 1:16:50 PM ET
STOCKHOLM— Ralph Steinman proved the importance of his Nobel prize-winning research in a most personal way, using his own discoveries to fight the pancreatic cancer that eventually killed him just days before the award was announced.
In the future, millions more people around the world are likely to gain from the discoveries by the Canadian-born scientist and his two fellow laureates into the workings of the body’s highly complex immune system.
Canadian-born Steinman, 68, had been treating himself with a groundbreaking therapy based on his research into the body’s immune system. He died on Friday after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. His colleagues at Rockefeller University in New York called it a “bittersweet” honor.
The Nobel committee had been unaware of Steinman’s death and it was initially unclear whether the prize would be rescinded because Nobel statutes don’t allow posthumous awards. But the Nobel Foundation said on Monday a decision to award the 2011 Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology to Steinman would remain unchanged despite his death.
“The events that have occurred are unique and, to the best of our knowledge, are unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Prize,” the foundation said in a statement.
“According to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, work produced by a person since deceased shall not be given an award. However, the statutes specify that if a person has been awarded a prize and has died before receiving it, the prize may be presented.”
The Nobel statutes don’t allow posthumous awards unless a laureate dies after the announcement but before the Dec. 10 award ceremony. That happened in 1996 when economics winner William Vickrey died a few days after the announcement.
Before the statues were changed in 1974 two Nobel Prizes were given posthumously. In 1961 U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize less than a month after he died in a plane crash during a peace mission to Congo. Swedish poet Erik Axel Karlfeldt won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1931, although he had died in March the same year.
Nobel committee member Goran Hansson Steinman’s death is “incredibly sad news. We can only regret that he didn’t have the chance to receive the news he had won the Nobel Prize. Our thoughts are now with his family.”
Steinman shared the prize with American Bruce Beutler and French scientist Jules Hoffmann.
Beutler, 53, is based at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. Luxembourg-born Hoffmann, 70, conducted much of his work in Strasbourg. They will share half the 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.46 million) of prize-money. The rest should have gone to Steinman, though the unusual circumstances leave its fate now in some doubt.
Steinman had been affiliated with Rockefeller University in New York since 1970, and headed its Center for Immunology and Immune Diseases.
“We are all so touched that our father’s many years of hard work are being recognized with a Nobel Prize,” Steinman’s daughter, Alexis Steinman, said in the Rockefeller University statement. “He devoted his life to his work and his family, and he would be truly honored.”
Improved vaccines The work of the 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.
“They have made possible the development of new methods for preventing and treating disease, for instance with improved vaccines against infections and in attempts to stimulate the immune system to attack tumors,” the committee said.
The immune system’s main function is to protect against harmful invaders but it can sometimes go into overdrive and attack healthy tissue, leading to autoimmune inflammatory diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.
“Almost all vaccines against microbes, vaccines against cancer, and vaccines to try to eliminate and down-regulate immunity in inflammatory diseases are based on these discoveries,” said Lars Klareskog, chairman of the Nobel Assembly.
Beutler and Hoffmann discovered in the 1990s that receptor proteins act as a first line of defense, innate immunity, by recognizing bacteria and other microorganisms. Steinman’s work, explained how, if required, dendritic cells in the next phase, adaptive immunity, kill off infections that break through.
Understanding dendritic cells led to the launch of the first therapeutic cancer vaccine last year, Dendreon’s Provenge, which treats men with advanced prostate cancer.
No vaccines are on the market yet, but Hansson told AP that vaccines against hepatitis are in the pipeline. “Large clinical trials are being done today,” he said.
Dr. Vinay Kumar, chairman of the department of pathology at the University of Chicago, who knew both Steinman and Beutler, said the discoveries by these three Nobel laureates have very broad impact.
“These findings are the intellectual foundation of how to design a good vaccine,” Kumar said.
Medicine, or physiology, is usually the first of the Nobel prizes awarded each year. Prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace were first awarded in 1901 accordance with the will of dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel.
The award citation noted that the world’s scientists had long been searching for the “gatekeepers” of immune response.
Last year’s medicine award went to British professor Robert Edwards for fertility research that led to the first test tube baby.