(Updated) Immunologist Ralph M. Steinman was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for his discoveries about the human body’s immune system — research that had for years extended the scientist’s own life in a battle against an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer. Hours after the Nobel committee’s announcement of the prize, however, Steinman’s university said that the researcher had succumbed to cancer. He died on Sept. 30 at age 68.
Steinman shared the 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) prize with American Bruce A. Beutler and French scientist Jules A. Hoffmann, who were also acknowledged for their work on the immune system. But the Nobel committee said it was not aware of Steinman’s death at the time of its announcement, and it was initially unclear whether the prize would be rescinded. The Nobel statutes do not allow posthumous awards.
“I think you can safely say that this hasn’t happened before,” Nobel Foundation spokeswoman Annika Pontikis told the AP.
Update [3 p.m.]: After a review of its regulations, the Nobel Foundation announced that it would allow Steinman to retain the award. “The decision to award the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to the late Ralph Steinman shall remain unchanged,” the foundation said, noting that while the Nobel Prize may not deliberately be given posthumously, “The decision to award the Nobel Prize to Ralph Steinman was made in good faith, based on the assumption that the Nobel Laureate was alive.”
The current rules, which have been in place since 1974, stipulate that “work produced by a person since deceased shall not be given an award” and further that Nobel Prizes “cannot be awarded posthumously, unless death has occurred after the announcement.” (In 1996, this situation applied to William Vickrey, who died days after the announcement that he had won the Nobel Prize in economics.)
Before 1974, two Nobel Prizes were given posthumously: the Nobel Peace Prize went to U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold in 1961 less than a month after he died in a plane crash during a peace mission to Congo. Previously, in 1931, the Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to Swedish poet Erik Axel Karlfeldt who had died in March of the same year.
In the late Steinman’s case, the Nobel Foundation concluded that “what has occurred is more reminiscent of the example in the statutes concerning a person who has been named as a Nobel Laureate and has died before the actual Nobel Prize Award Ceremony.”
The news will be well received by many fellow scientists and supporters who do not question that Steinman’s award is richly deserved. Steinman, who was a senior physician and the Henry G. Kunkel Professor of medicine at Rockefeller University, is credited with co-discovering dendritic cells, which help regulate the body’s adaptive immunity. According to the Nobel Assembly’s press release:
Ralph Steinman discovered, in 1973, a new cell type that he called the dendritic cell. He speculated that it could be important in the immune system and went on to test whether dendritic cells could activate T cells, a cell type that has a key role in adaptive immunity and develops an immunologic memory against many different substances. In cell culture experiments, he showed that the presence of dendritic cells resulted in vivid responses of T cells to such substances. These findings were initially met with skepticism but subsequent work by Steinman demonstrated that dendritic cells have a unique capacity to activate T cells.
Further studies by Steinman and other scientists went on to address the question of how the adaptive immune system decides whether or not it should be activated when encountering various substances. Signals arising from the innate immune response and sensed by dendritic cells were shown to control T cell activation. This makes it possible for the immune system to react towards pathogenic microorganisms while avoiding an attack on the body’s own endogenous molecules.
Steinman’s work, along with the research conducted by his fellow winners, Hoffmann and Beutler — they discovered receptor proteins that recognize bacteria and other microorganisms as they enter the body and activate the body’s innate immunity, the immune system’s first line of defense — “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.
“These discoveries also help us understand why the immune system can attack our own tissues, thus providing clues for novel treatment of inflammatory diseases,” the Nobel Assembly said.