Most cancer patients who ultimately lose their battle with the disease are robbed of years, and sometimes decades, of life. In Ralph Steinman’s case, he may have been happy to have had just three extra days.
Steinman, a Canadian cell biologist who co-discovered and researched dendritic cells, was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine on Monday, days after he died of pancreatic cancer.
Steinman split the prize with researchers Bruce Beutler and Jules Hoffmann, who were also recognized for their work on the immune system. Beutler, an American, and Hoffmann, who hails from France, have conducted ground-breaking research on the mechanisms that activate the immune system.
Hoffman discovered the Toll gene in fruit flies, which codes for the Toll receptors on the surface of most fly cells. These receptors initially sense an invasion of pathogenic microbes and trigger the first line of immune defense, known as ‘innate immunity’.
Beutler built on this research by pinpointing a gene in mice that was similar to the Toll gene. Combined, their work has confirmed a link in immune activation between fruit flies and mammals, paving the way for a slew of research that has implications for human disease prevention and treatment.
Steinman was awarded the prize based on his extensive work with dendritic cells, part of the second-line “adaptive” immune system, which he helped discover in 1973. He found that the cells are uniquely able to activate T cells—the immune system’s cellular army. Steinman’s recent work involved using dendritic cell vaccines to fight tumors, and he used dendritic-cell based immunotherapy of his own design in his personal battle against cancer.
The board of the Nobel Foundation, which seeks to award the Prize each year to living scientists, announced on Monday afternoon that they would not reverse their decision to honor Steinman, because they had not been aware of his passing until a few hours after announcing the award. Steinman is the first Laureate to win posthumously since 1974, when the Foundation changed the rules to allow only living recipients. Steinman’s half of the $1.5 million prize will go to his family.