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Nobel prizewinner dies before announcement

Oct 3, 2011, 7:04 a.m.
Nobel Medicine laureate, Luxembourg-born Jules Hoffmann, walks down the stairs at a hotel in Shanghai October 3, 2011, after receiving news of winning the Nobel prize. Three scientists who uncovered key secrets of how the body's immune system works have won the 2011 Nobel prize for medicine or physiology, the prize-awarding institute said on Monday in Stockholm. Hoffmann, based in France, U.S. scientist Bruce Beutler and Canadian-born Ralph Steinman, based in the United States are the laureates. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Patrick Lannin and Anna Ringstrom

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - A scientist who won the Nobel prize for medicine on Monday for work on fighting cancer died of the disease himself just three days before he could be told of his award, and after using his own discoveries to extend his life.

Canadian-born Ralph Steinman, 68, had been treating himself with a groundbreaking therapy based on his own research into the body's immune system but died on Friday after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. His colleagues at Rockefeller University in New York called it a "bittersweet" honor.

The Nobel Committee at Sweden's Karolinska Institute, which does not make posthumous awards, said it was aware of Steinman's death; but it appeared that it had not known before making its announcement. It is likely that Steinman died without being aware he had won science's ultimate accolade, along with American Bruce Beutler and Jules Hoffmann of France.

Swedish officials on the Nobel Committee were rushing to try to clarify what secretary general Goran Hansson, called a "unique situation, because he died hours before the decision was made". Hansson told Swedish news agency TT the panel would review what to do with the prize money, due to rules against posthumous awards. But it would not name a substitute winner.

"The Nobel Foundation has recognized Ralph Steinman for his seminal discoveries concerning the body's immune responses," said Rockerfeller University president Marc Tessier-Lavigne.

"But the news is bittersweet, as we also learned this morning from Ralph's family that he passed a few days ago after a long battle with cancer," he added.

The institution said in a statement: "Steinman passed away on September 30. He was 68. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago, and his life was extended using a dendritic-cell based immunotherapy of his own design."

PRIZE MONEY

Alexis Steinman, indicating that her father had not known on his deathbed of the impending decision in Stockholm, said: "We are all so touched that our father's many years of hard work are being recognized with a Nobel Prize. He devoted his life to his work and his family and he would be truly honored."

Beutler and Hoffmann, who studied the first stages of the body's immune responses to attack in the 1990s, shared the $1.5 million award with Steinman, originally from Montreal, whose discovery of dendritic cells in the 1970s is key to understanding the body's next line of defense against disease.

"This year's Nobel laureates have revolutionized our understanding of the immune system by discovering key principles for its activation," the award panel at Sweden's Karolinska Institute said in a statement in Stockholm.

Lars Klareskog, who chairs the prize-giving panel, told Reuters before the news of Steinman's death: "I am very excited about what these discoveries mean. I think that we will have new, better vaccines against microbes and that is very much needed now with the increased resistance against antibiotics."

Beutler, 53, is based at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. Luxembourg-born Hoffmann, 70, conducted much of his work in Strasbourg. They were supposed to share half the 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.46 million) of prize-money. The rest should have gone to Steinman, though the unusual circumstances leave its fate now in some doubt.

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