Steinman, 68, died of pancreatic cancer on Friday after four years of treatment that included experimental therapy based in part on discoveries he’d made. Scientists at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute, who choose the medicine or physiology winners for the Nobel Foundation, didn’t learn of his death until Monday morning. Sharing the award with him were Bruce A. Beutler of the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego and Jules A. Hoffmann of the Institute for Molecular Cell Biology in Strasbourg, France.
After eight hours of hurried consultation and research, the foundation decided to let the award stand. It is treating the events as if Steinman had died between the announcement and the award ceremony in December — a situation in which an award to a deceased recipient is allowed.
“The decision to award the Nobel Prize to Ralph Steinman was made in good faith, based on the assumption that the Nobel Laureate was alive . . . The decision . . . thus remains unchanged,” the foundation announced late in the afternoon.
“It’s been a surreal and bittersweet day” said Adam Steinman, a 38-year-old law professor in Newark who is one of the winner’s children. He, his two sisters, who live on the West Coast, and their mother gathered last week. They were still together when they awoke to e-mail messages announcing the award.
“We are obviously devastated by his passing,” said Adam Steinman, who teaches at Seton Hall University. “But it was a real gift that we were able to be here in his final days, and now to celebrate this wonderful accomplishment.”
Ralph Steinman, who grew up in Quebec but became a naturalized U.S. citizen, received the award for his discovery in 1973 of the dendritic cell. It “presents” molecular fragments of microbial or tumor cells to the immune system like a dog bringing a bone to its master. That leads to a cascade of events culminating in the production of antibodies or cells specially targeted at the foreign invader.
As part of his treatment, Steinman had some of his own dendritic cells removed, exposed to molecular fragments of his own tumor, and then reinfused into his bloodstream. Researchers believe this may give the immune system a boost in fighting the cancer. It is one of several applications of Steinman’s research.
“He certainly deserved to get this award. He was a man who knew how to walk uphill right from the start,” said his first graduate student, Michel Nussenzweig, 56, who is also at Rockefeller University. “For the first 10 years he was doing this work nobody even believed it.”