Ralph Steinman (AP Photo)
STOCKHOLM (AP) — A pioneering cell biologist was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine Monday for his discoveries about the immune system. Hours later, his university said he had died of pancreatic cancer three days earlier, even as he was using his own research to try to save his life.
The Nobel committee, which is only supposed to consider living scientists, said it was unaware of the death of Ralph Steinman when it awarded the 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) prize.
The Nobel statutes say work "by a person since deceased shall not be considered for an award" but they don't specifically say whether that also applies if the jury mistakenly picks a winner unaware that he or she has died.
"I think you can safely say that this hasn't happened before," Nobel Foundation spokeswoman Annika Pontikis told The Associated Press. The committee was expected to make a statement on the issue later Monday.
The Canadian-born Steinman, 68, who shared the prize with American Bruce Beutler and French scientist Jules Hoffmann, died Sept. 30 of pancreatic cancer, according to Rockefeller University in New York, where he had studied and worked since 1970.
It said Steinman underwent therapy based on his discovery of the immune system's dendritic cells, for which he won the prize.
"He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago, and his life was extended using a dendritic-cell based immunotherapy of his own design," the university said.
Beutler and Hoffmann were cited for their discoveries in the 1990s of receptor proteins that can recognize bacteria and other microorganisms as they enter the body, and activate the first line of defense in the immune system, known as innate immunity.
Nobel committee members said the work by the three is being used to develop better vaccines, and in the long run could also help treatment of diseases linked to abnormalities in the immune system, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and chronic inflammatory diseases.
The work could also help efforts to make the immune system fight cancerous tumors, the committee said.
No vaccines are on the market yet, but Nobel committee member Goran Hansson told The Associated Press that vaccines against hepatitis are in the pipeline.
"I am very touched. I'm thinking of all the people who worked with me, who gave everything," Hoffmann said by telephone to a news conference in Paris. "I wasn't sure this domain merited a Nobel."
Beutler said he woke up in the middle of the night, glanced at his cellphone and realized he had a new email message.
"And, I squinted at it and I saw that the title line was 'Nobel Prize,' so I thought I should give close attention to that," Beutler said in an interview posted on the Nobel website. "And, I opened it and it was from Goran Hansson, and it said that I had won the Nobel Prize, and so I was thrilled."
Still, he was a "little disbelieving" until he checked his laptop, "and in a few minutes I saw my name there and so I knew it was real."
Since 1974, the Nobel statutes don't allow 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.
Before the statutes were changed in 1974 two Nobel Prizes were given posthumously. In 1961, U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize less than a month after he died in a plane crash during a peace mission to Congo. Swedish poet Erik Axel Karlfeldt won the Nobel in literature in 1931, although he had died in March of that year.
Hansson said the medicine committee didn't know Steinman was dead when it chose him as a winner and was looking through its regulations.
"It is incredibly sad news," he said. "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."
Beutler, 53, holds dual appointments at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and as professor of genetics and immunology at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. He will become a full-time faculty member at UT Southwestern on Dec. 1.
Hoffmann, 70, headed a research laboratory in Strasbourg, France, between 1974 and 2009 and served as president of the French National Academy of Sciences between 2007-08.
Steinman had been head of Rockefeller University's Center for Immunology and Immune Diseases.
"We are all so touched that our father's many years of hard work are being recognized with a Nobel Prize," Steinman's daughter, Alexis Steinman, said in the Rockefeller University statement. "He devoted his life to his work and his family, and he would be truly honored."
Hoffmann's discovery came in 1996 during research on how fruit flies fight infections. Two years later, Beutler's research on mice showed that fruit flies and mammals activate innate immunity in similar ways when attacked by germs.
Steinman's discovery dates back to 1973, when he found a new cell type, the dendritic cell, which has a unique capacity to activate T-cells. Those cells have a key role in adaptive immunity, when antibodies and killer cells fight infections. They also develop a memory that helps the immune system mobilize its defenses next time it comes under a similar attack.
The medicine award kicked off a week of Nobel Prize announcements, and will be followed by the physics prize on Tuesday, chemistry on Wednesday, literature on Thursday and the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. The winners of the economics award will be announced on Oct. 10.
The coveted prizes were established by wealthy Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel — the inventor of dynamite — except for the economics award, which was created by Sweden's central bank in 1968 in Nobel's memory. The prizes are always handed out on Dec. 10, on the anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896.
Last year's medicine award went to British professor Robert Edwards for fertility research that led to the first test tube baby.
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