One of three medical researchers to be awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize for their breakthroughs in understanding the immune system died last week from pancreatic cancer, having been kept alive by a treatment he helped develop.
The Nobel Assembly voted on Monday to give half of its annual Skr10m ($1.45m) prize for physiology or medicine to Ralph Steinman, 68, professor of immunology at Rockefeller University in New York, without knowing that he had died.
His death raised a challenge for the committee. The governing statutes do not permit awards to be made posthumously but allow a laureate to retain the title if he or she dies before the award ceremony.
Hours after the learning the news the Nobel Assembly voted in an emergency meeting on Monday afternoon to maintain the award to Professor Steinman.
The assembly said: “The events that have occurred are unique and, to the best of our knowledge, are unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Prize.”
It said the award was made in good faith before learning of the death of Prof Steinman.
Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of Rockefeller University, said Prof Steinman extended his life with a dendritic cell-based immunotherapy of his own design.
His work was recognised with that of Bruce Beutler, professor of genetics at the Scripps Research Institute in California, and Jules Hoffmann, former president of the French National Academy of Sciences, who jointly received SKr5m.
The three scientists were granted the prize for their work on the activation of the immune system. Their collective work helped lead to the development of better vaccines to protect against infection and tackle tumours, as well as to provide new ways to treat inflammatory diseases.
Prof Steinman, who was born in Canada, discovered the dendritic cell in 1973. He showed that it activated T cells, a cell type that develops an immunologic memory and protects against infections. His later work showed how dendritic cells controlled T-cell activation to attack pathogens while avoiding attacks on the body’s own molecules.
Describing the news as “bittersweet”, Mr Tessier-Lavigne said: “Ralph’s research has laid the foundation for numerous discoveries in the critically important field of immunology, and it has led to innovative new approaches in how we treat cancer, infectious diseases and disorders of the immune system.”
In 1996, Mr Hoffmann, who led a team studying fruit flies, discovered the importance of the Toll gene for identifying pathogens, serving as an early-warning system for infection. Flies infected with bacteria or fungi with mutant Tolls were unable to survive.
Mr Beutler in 1998 expanded the work into mammals, discovering a Toll-like receptor (TLR) in mice similar to Toll in fruit flies. The academics’ work boosted research around innate immunity, with their findings leading to the identification of a dozen TLRs in mice and humans which recognise different micro-organisms.
The prize in physiology or medicine, one of several awards made since 1901, is determined by the Nobel Assembly, comprising 50 professors at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute. Nearly a third of its annual decisions have been shared between three laureates, a higher proportion than the other awards.
The Nobel Foundation will announce the winners of the 2011 prize for physics and chemistry on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. Other awards for literature, peace and economic studies will follow.