WASHINGTON: The ultimate lifetime achievement award came days too late for Canadian Ralph Steinman, who was honored Monday with the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his groundbreaking work on the immune system.
The 68-year-old cell biologist’s own discoveries helped extend his life but he died Friday after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer, according to the New York-based Rockefeller University where he worked.
Steinman shared the award with Bruce Beutler of the United States and Luxembourg-born Jules Hoffmann, a naturalized French citizen, for their work on the body’s complex defense system in which signaling molecules unleash antibodies and killer cells to respond to invading microbes.
"The news is bittersweet, as we also learned this morning from Ralph’s family that he passed a few days ago after a long battle with cancer. Our thoughts are with Ralph’s wife, children and family," said university president Marc Tessier-Lavigne.
The university said in a statement it was also "delighted" to learn of the Nobel honor, and added Steinman’s "life was extended using a dendritic cell-based immunotherapy of his own design."
The Nobel committee in Stockholm, Sweden said it would stand by the award, even though it is typically not given out posthumously.
"We just got the information. What we can do now is only to regret that he could not experience the joy," Goeran Hansson, the head of the Nobel assembly at Karolinska Institutet, was quoted as saying by the Swedish news agency TT.
According to the committee’s rules, "work produced by a person since deceased shall not be considered for an award. If, however, a prizewinner dies before he has received the prize, then the prize may be presented."
Steinman was born in Montreal, Canada on January 14, 1943, and earned his medical degree from Harvard University in 1968.
He and his collaborator Zanvil Cohn discovered in 1973 a new cell type called the dendritic cell.
Steinman "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," said the Nobel committee.
"These findings were initially met with skepticism but subsequent work by Steinman demonstrated that dendritic cells have a unique capacity to activate T cells."
Tessier-Lavigne said his research "laid the foundation for numerous discoveries in the critically important field of immunology, and it has led to innovative new approaches in how we treat cancer, infectious diseases and disorders of the immune system."
Steinman began work at Rockefeller University in 1970 as a postdoctoral fellow and was named director of the Christopher Browne Center for Immunology and Immune Diseases in 1998.
Steinman received a host of honors during his life, including the 2007 Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research.
"We are all so touched that our father’s many years of hard work are being recognized with a Nobel Prize," said his daughter, Alexis Steinman.
"He devoted his life to his work and his family, and he would be truly honored."