Cancer kills Nobel physician before hears of prize

Oct 3, 2011, 9:39 a.m.
Nobel prize for medicine winner Canadian-born Ralph Steinman. REUTERS/Zach Veilleux/Rockefeller University

By Patrick Lannin and Mia Shanley

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - A scientist who won the Nobel prize for medicine on Monday used his own discoveries to treat himself for cancer, but died of the disease just days before he could be told of the award.

Calling it "bittersweet" news, colleagues of Canadian-born Ralph Steinman at New York's Rockefeller University said he had prolonged his own life with a new therapy based on his prize-winning research into the body's immune system.

But the 68-year-old physician, who joked last week with his family about hanging on until the annual prize announcement, died on Friday after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

He never knew his life's work had been crowned with the highest accolade science can bestow.

"We wanted him to be here for this," said his daughter Alexis Steinman, 34. "We were like 'OK Dad, I know things aren't going well but the Nobel, they are going to announce it next Monday'. And he's like: 'I know I have got to hold out for that. They don't give it to you if you have passed away.

"'I got to hold out for that.'"

Calling it a "unique" situation, Sweden's Nobel Committee was still considering how to reconcile the announcement with its policy of not making posthumous awards. It said it learned of Steinman's death two hours after declaring to the world that he would share the $1.5 million annual prize with American Bruce Beutler and Jules Hoffman from France.

"It's really impossible to describe how our family is feeling right now. We're devastated to have lost Ralph," Steinman's son Adam told reporters in New York. "We're so incredibly proud of dad for receiving this wonderful honor ... We know he will live on through his scientific contributions."

Steinman's research contributed to the launch last year of the first vaccine which is designed to kill tumors.


Colleagues said Steinman was working until last week. Admitted to hospital on Sunday, he lost consciousness on Thursday and died surrounded by family the following day. But Rockefeller University president Marc Tessier-Lavigne said the university only heard of his death from the family about half an hour after news of the Nobel prize came out from Sweden.

In Stockholm, Nobel Committee secretary general Goran Hansson told Reuters that the poignant situation only became apparent there when his staff could not reach Steinman to tell him of the prize. It had been a closely guarded secret until announced by the Karolinska Institute at 11:30 a.m. (0930 GMT).

"I am, of course, saddened that Dr Steinman could not receive this news and feel that happiness," Hansson said.

"He was a great scientist."

His university said: "Steinman ... was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago, and his life was extended using a dendritic-cell based immunotherapy of his own design."

Those cells, which the Montreal-born Steinman discovered in the 1970s, are key to the attack the body launches on tumors and infections if they breach its first line of immune defense.

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