- Associated Press - Monday, October 3, 2011

STOCKHOLM — A pioneering researcher was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine Monday, three days after dying of pancreatic cancer without ever knowing he was about to be honored for his immune system work that he had used to prolong his own life.

The Nobel committee said it was unaware that Canadian-born cell biologist Ralph Steinman had already died when it awarded the prize to him, American Bruce Beutler and French scientist Jules Hoffmann.

Since the committee is only supposed to consider living scientists, the Nobel Foundation held an emergency meeting Monday and said the decision on the 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) prize will remain unchanged.

“The Nobel Prize to Ralph Steinman was made in good faith, based on the assumption that the Nobel laureate was alive,” the foundation said.

Steinman, 68, died Sept. 30, according to Rockefeller University in New York. He underwent therapy based on his discovery of the immune system’s dendritic cells, for which he won the prize, the university said.

“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.”

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