Nobel researcher was a subject of his own discovery
Oct 3, 2011, 8:51 a.m.
By Ben Hirschler and Julie Steenhuysen
LONDON/CHICAGO (Reuters) - Ralph Steinman proved the importance of his Nobel prize-winning research in a most personal way, using his own discoveries to fight the pancreatic cancer that eventually killed him just days before the award was announced.
In the future, millions more people around the world are likely to gain from the discoveries by the Canadian-born scientist and his two fellow laureates into the workings of the body's highly complex immune system.
Steinman, 68, died on September 30 after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago. His life was extended by a treatment of his own design, using the defensive dendritic cells that he discovered in 1973.
Officials at the Nobel Committee were clarifying the status of Steinman's prize on Monday as it does not make posthumous awards. He was awarded medicine's ultimate accolade along with American Bruce Beutler and Jules Hoffmann of France.
But Steinman's case shows how a better understanding of the immune system is unlocking new ways of preventing and treating common diseases -- from bacterial infections to cancer.
The breakthroughs in pinpointing these defensive elements have helped reignite interest in vaccine research in recent years, by shedding light on the twin-track process of early and late -- or innate and adaptive -- immunity that protects our bodies from invaders.
"Our improved understanding of both the innate and adaptive immune response has been pivotal in the development of improved vaccines in the past decade," said Vincent Brichard, head of immunotherapeutics at GlaxoSmithKline's vaccines unit.
"Looking to the future, a new generation of therapeutic vaccines may enable us to treat a number of major cancer types."
FIGHTING PROSTATE CANCER
While Steinman's treatment for his own cancer may have been self-made, the world's first therapeutic vaccine to fight tumors was actually launched last year.
Dendreon's Provenge is a novel kind of drug for prostate cancer, tailored to each patient, that works by stimulating the person's immune system to fight tumors. It has met with limited commercial success but is an important proof of the concept.
Similar treatments are now in development at several bigger companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, which has a closely watched experimental vaccine for lung cancer in late-stage clinical trials.
Research by the other two Nobel laureates, Beutler and Hoffmann, sheds light on an earlier and more primitive phase of the immune system.
So-called innate immunity kicks in much more rapidly than adaptive and is shared between humans and all other animals.
It was only in the 1990s, however, that Hoffmann's work in fruitflies and Beutler's work in mice showed how this innate system uses proteins called Toll-like receptors (TLRs) to fight germs.
Harnessing TLRs is today a growing focus for biotech and pharmaceutical companies looking for treatments for a wide range of illnesses from cancer to respiratory and inflammatory diseases.
The immune system's main function is to protect against harmful invaders but it can sometimes go into overdrive and attack healthy tissue, leading to autoimmune inflammatory diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.
"Almost all vaccines against microbes, vaccines against cancer, and vaccines to try to eliminate and down-regulate immunity in inflammatory diseases are based on these discoveries," said Lars Klareskog, chairman of the Nobel Assembly.
Dr. Vinay Kumar, chairman of the department of pathology at the University of Chicago, who knew both Steinman and Beutler, said the discoveries by these three Nobel laureates have very broad impact.
"These findings are the intellectual foundation of how to design a good vaccine," Kumar said.
(Additional reporting by Mia Shanley in Stockholm; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Eric Beech)