Scientist wins Nobel just after his death

Nobel Prize winner Ralph Steinman 's family in front of a picture of him at a ceremony Monday. They are (from left) daughter Lesley Steinman, wife Claudia Steinman, son Adam Steinman.
Nobel Prize winner Ralph Steinman 's family in front of a picture of him at a ceremony Monday. They are (from left) daughter Lesley Steinman, wife Claudia Steinman, son Adam Steinman. (SETH WENIG / Associated Press)

He used his research to fight his own cancer.

Posted: October 04, 2011

NEW YORK - Ralph Steinman, a pioneer in understanding how cells fight disease, tried to help his own immune system thwart his pancreatic cancer.

Steinman survived until Friday. Three days later, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine.

The Nobel committee, unaware of his death, announced the award Monday in Stockholm. Steinman's employer, Rockefeller University in New York, learned of his death after the Nobel announcement.

Steinman's wife, Claudia, said the family had planned to disclose his death Monday - only to discover an e-mail to his cellphone from the Nobel committee.

Friends and colleagues were stunned by his death.

"For the last five years, I've gotten up in the morning of the Nobel Prize announcement and rushed to the computer to see his name," said Olivera J. Finn of the University of Pittsburgh.

"And this morning I saw it, and I just totally shrieked with joy," she said. Then she heard the bad news from a friend in Singapore.

"I have been this whole morning . . . out of breath like somebody punched me in the stomach," Finn said.

Experts disagree whether Steinman's research helped him live for 41/2 years after he was diagnosed. A colleague in his lab says it did. The odds of making it even a year with his type of cancer are less than 5 percent.

Nobel officials said they believed it was the first time that a laureate had died before the announcement without the committee's knowledge.

"It is incredibly sad news," said Nobel Foundation chairman Lars Heikensten. "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."

Since 1974, the Nobel statutes have not allowed 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.

However, the committee said Monday that Steinman's award would stand and that his survivors would receive his share of the $1.5 million prize.

The Canadian-born Steinman, 68, was awarded the prize along with American Bruce Beutler and French scientist Jules Hoffmann. They were honored for discoveries about the body's disease-fighting immune system.

Steinman discovered so-called dendritic cells in 1973. These cells regulate the activity of other cells - Steinman called them the conductor of the immune system.

"When he got sick, he realized he needed to call upon these cells to induce a strong enough immune response to fight his tumor, and that is what he did," said Sarah Schlesinger, clinical director for his lab.

Steinman tried eight to 10 experimental therapies approved by the federal government, focusing in various ways on revving up his immune system to fight his cancer, she said.

Colleagues came forward with their best approaches for other kinds of cancer, and Steinman analyzed what seemed the most promising for him.

In one approach, for example, samples of Steinman's own dendritic cells were loaded with protein markers from his tumor, and then reinjected into his body. The idea was that this would "teach his immune system how to respond to that tumor," said Rockefeller colleague Michel Nussenzweig.

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