The Nobel Committee announced Monday that Ralph M. Steinman, Harvard Medical School ‘68, would share the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Bruce A. Beutler and Jules A. Hoffmann. The three were honored by the committee for work on the immune system that may shed light on new ways to fight cancer and infectious disease.
The announcement, however, came just three days after Steinman’s death at 68 from pancreatic cancer, which he had been treating with some of the same methods that he pioneered as a clinician-researcher at Rockefeller University in New York.
The Nobel committee did not learn of Steinman’s death until two hours after the official prize announcement.
Though the rules for awarding Nobel prizes strictly prohibit posthumous awards, the committee has since announced that Steinman will remain a laureate alongside the other two recipients.
“The statutes specify that if a person has been awarded a prize and has died before receiving it, the prize may be presented,” read a press release from the committee. “The events that have occurred are unique and, to the best of our knowledge, are unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Prize.”
The Nobel committee has not specified a recipient for Steinman’s share of the $1.5 million prize. It remains unclear whether a new recipient will be named or if the prize money will be split evenly between Beutler and Hoffmann.
In awarding the prize, the Nobel Committee said that Steinman, Beutler, and Hoffmann’s work had “revolutionized our understanding of the immune system by discovering key principles for its activation.”
Steinman’s research contributed to the prostate cancer treatment Provenge, the first cancer vaccine to be approved in the United States. His work dates back to his 1973 discovery of the “dendritic cells” of the immune system, which activate T cells and regulate the body’s process of adaptive immunity. The adaptive immune defenses studied by Steinman are triggered if an invading microorganism is able to break past the body’s innate immune defenses—Beutler and Hoffmann’s area of expertise.
HMS Assistant Professor Nir Hacohen, who also conducts research in immunology, credits Steinman with his intense persistence in pursuing research in what was then a relatively new and unestablished field.
“Each small increment of understanding took a decade [to achieve],” Hacohen said. “The field didn’t really explode until the 1990’s. He was able to take a discovery from nothing to something really interesting with a lot of persistence and optimism.”
According to Hacohen, Steinman helped organize conferences and promote discussion about the importance of dendritic cells.
Recently, Steinman had been working on ways in which dendritic cells could be used to fight cancer. Hacohen said that researchers have developed a method by which a sample of a patient’s dendritic cells are extracted and modified in the lab to activate only the T-cells that target cancer cell-specific proteins.
Hacohen said that recent studies indicate that this type of therapy may be successful in the future. He also stressed that dendritic cells could be used to enhance vaccines for a wide array of diseases.
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