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“When he got sick, he realized he needed to call upon these cells to induce a strong enough immune response to fight his tumor, and that is what he did,” said Dr. Sarah Schlesinger, clinical director for his lab.

Steinman tried eight to 10 experimental therapies approved by the federal government, focusing in various ways on revving up his immune system to fight his cancer, she said.

Colleagues came forward with their best approaches for other kinds of cancer, and Steinman analyzed what seemed the most promising for him.

In one approach, for example, samples of Steinman’s own dendritic cells were loaded with protein markers from his tumor, and then reinjected into his body. The idea was that this would “teach his immune system how to respond to that tumor,” said Rockefeller colleague Dr. Michel Nussenzweig.

Although he also underwent chemotherapy, “he didn’t really want to take it because he wanted to be cured,” Nussenzweig said. “And he felt the immune system would be the best way to effect a cure, as opposed to just living with the disease.”

Dozens of scientists around the world pitched in on the effort, Nussenzweig said. “Ralph was a special person, and they were all eager to do anything to try to cure him.”

The experimental therapy continued until just recently, he said, but “there’s no way of knowing whether it worked or not.”

Steinman was the only patient, with no control group _ other patients with the same cancer for comparison, a scientific must for convincing evidence. “It’s not the kind of experiment Ralph would have liked to have done.”

Rockefeller University said “his life was extended” using the therapy of his own design. Schlesinger believes that, pointing to the poor survival odds for his tumor and his good quality of life during his treatment. Noting that he also got chemotherapy, she said, “I think it all worked together.”

But Dr. Alan Venook, a pancreatic cancer specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, cautioned against drawing conclusions about the impact of the treatments.

He said surviving four years with pancreatic cancer “is a long time,” but not out of the question, depending on the type and how advanced it was when it was found.

“It’s a disservice to the field for anyone to say that his immune therapy prolonged his life,” Venook added.

“The phones will be ringing off the hook” with desperate patients who mistakenly believe that these experimental treatments have been proved safe or effective when in fact they have not, he said.

Finn said Steinman used several experimental therapies based on the immune system “because he believed in that as a solution to the problem of cancer.” She said she believed the approach prolonged his life.

Nussenzweig said Steinman was working on his laboratory research until just a week ago.

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