Steinman Dies Days Before Receiving Nobel Prize

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Ralph Steinman won the Nobel Prize for medicine days after he died of cancer. However, the Nobel committee, which typically only awards the prize to living scientists, didn't know Steinman had passed away.

GUY RAZ, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. Three scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. All three were pioneers in figuring out how the immune system works. But for much of the day, it was unclear whether one of the scientists was even eligible for the award. That's because he died several days ago. And as NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, Nobel Prize rules say the award can only go to living scientists.

JON HAMILTON: Officials from Rockefeller University say Ralph Steinman died on Friday. He'd worked at Rockefeller since 1970. But apparently, neither the university nor the Nobel Foundation knew of his death until after the award was announced this morning. That led to speculation about whether Steinman would get to keep the prize. Then, after hours of uncertainty, the foundation said he would. Steinman had been battling pancreatic cancer for four years, and was reportedly receiving a treatment based on his own, Nobel-winning research into the immune system.

That research involved his discovery of immune cells, called dendritic cells, that are found in the skin, the intestine and the lungs. Steinman described these cells in a video made around the time he won the A.H. Heineken Prize for Medicine last year.

Dr. RALPH STEINMAN: They're constantly probing the environment, looking for all the challenges that the immune system has to deal with. And then when they see the challenge, they have to take it into the body and teach the immune system what to do.

HAMILTON: Steinman discovered dendritic cells back in 1973. Since then, he said, his lab had been working to apply what they learned.

STEINMAN: So we're trying to use, to exploit, to harness what we've learned about dendritic cells to make better vaccines, and in a new way, vaccines that will be composed of very chemically defined substances and will be very safe, very specific and very incisive, in terms of what they do.

HAMILTON: Steinman won half of the Nobel Prize. The other half went to two scientists who figured out a more basic part of the immune system, known as innate immunity. One of them is Jules Hoffmann, who ran a research laboratory at the University of Strasbourg in France until a couple of years ago. In 1996, Hoffmann discovered a gene in fruit flies that helps them fend off fungal and bacterial infections. The other scientist is Bruce Beutler, from Scripps Research Institute in California. In 1998, Beutler showed that fruit flies and mammals use a similar system to trigger an immune response. Beutler says he made the discovery one night after five frustrating years of research.

Dr. BRUCE BEUTLER: I was in my study looking over the results of BLAST analysis - those are sequence comparisons - and I saw the mutation that we were after, and I was absolutely thrilled. I was just shaking.

HAMILTON: Beutler's discovery was a receptor that can touch off inflammation. But he says the find has led to the discovery of many other receptors that control other types of immune response.

BEUTLER: So collectively, these receptors keep an eye out for almost any kind of infection - be it bacterial or viral or protozoal or fungal - and they tell us when we have an infection. They sound the alarm.

HAMILTON: And knowing what each receptor does is helping scientists develop better treatments for conditions like lupus, in which the immune system can actually harm healthy cells. Anthony Fauci directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He says that before these three Nobel laureates made their discoveries, there were big gaps in scientists' understanding of the immune system.

Dr. ANTHONY FAUCI: These are three substantial scientists who in different ways, kind of solved the puzzle.

HAMILTON: And Fauci says the discoveries are already proving useful in medical research.

FAUCI: It's to develop stronger responses against cancers and inflammatory diseases. It's to fight against infections. It's to help us develop better vaccines.

HAMILTON: Including vaccines against cancers like the one that killed Ralph Steinman. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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