Steinman. Photo courtesy of Zach Veilleux / Rockefeller University.
ONLY THREE DAYS after his death from pancreatic cancer, Ralph M. Steinman, MD, the Henry G. Kunkel Professor at Rockefeller University and a former MGH resident, was named one of three winners of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Steinman was honored for his discovery of dendritic cells, which play a key role in activating and regulating adaptive immunity. This discovery and his related research laid the foundation for other breakthroughs in immunology and led to new treatments for cancer, infectious diseases and immune system disorders. Steinman had been receiving immunotherapy treatment based on his own research.
“It is so very sad that Ralph passed away just days before he was awarded the Nobel Prize, the ultimate accolade for a scientist,” says Andrew Luster, MD, PhD, chief of the MGH Division of Rheumatology, Allergy and Immunology and a former student of Steinman’s at Rockefeller University. “It would have been especially sweet for Ralph to have known of his award as his discovery was not widely accepted at first, and he persevered for many years, through much criticism, to prove that the dendritic cell is a distinct cell uniquely capable of initiating an adaptive immune response.”
Steinman, who was born in Montreal, graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1968. During his internship and residency at the MGH, he met his future wife, Claudia, an MGH social worker. He then accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at Rockefeller University, where he spent the remainder of his career.
“I got to know Ralph quite well while he was a resident at MGH,” says Kurt Isselbacher, MD, former chief of Gastroenterology and founding director of the MGH Cancer Center. “He seemed to have an interest in immunology, so I suggested he contact Zanvil Cohn at Rockefeller, who had also been an MGH resident. I spoke with Zan and told him to seriously consider Ralph, whom I felt was very bright and imaginative, as well as quite humble and unassuming. Ralph joined Zan in 1970 and just two years later made his first observations leading to his discovery of dendritic cells. The rest is history.”
Although Nobel Prize rules state that the award cannot be given posthumously, the Nobel Committee made an exception since it was unaware of Steinman’s death before the announcement. He was awarded half the prize and the other half was divided between Bruce A. Beutler, MD, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and the Scripps Research Center in San Diego, and Jules A. Hoffmann, PhD, former research director of the National Center for Scientific Research in Strasbourg, France.
Steinman is one of 10 individuals with ties to the MGH who have received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine – including 2009 Laureate Jack Szostak, PhD, of the Department of Molecular Biology and the Center for Computational and Integrative Biology.
Read more articles from the 10/7/11 Hotline issue.