Biologist Ralph Steinman dies at 68, then wins Nobel Prize

Ralph Steinman, whose research and discoveries in cell biology not only changed the field of immunology but also extended his own fight against pancreatic cancer, died Sep. 30, three days before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine along with two other scientists.

In the first incident of its type, the Nobel committee awarded Steinman the prize for his work in discovering dendritic cells beginning more than 30 years ago, not knowing he had just died. The organization’s own rules do not permit posthumous awards, but it decided to let the award stand, as it said the prize was given in good faith. His family learned Steinman had received the award only when they checked his cell phone after his death and found a message from the Nobel committee.

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Steinman’s self-treatment over four years of pancreatic cancer was as unorthodox as his original findings, the ones that led to the Nobel Prize. Journalist Brett Norman, who followed Steinman’s experiments on himself, wrote a lengthy piece about the treatment for BBC. Even an excerpt shows the “made for the movies” drama inherent in Steinman’s dogged efforts:

When Ralph Steinman learned he had pancreatic cancer, the dogged immunologist put his life’s work to the test. He launched a life-and-death experiment in the most personal of personalized medicine.

By unlucky coincidence, he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a disease that might benefit from the therapies he had spent his life researching.

Usually, medical research proceeds at a glacial, thorough pace….But Steinman didn’t have that kind of time.

He did, however, have access to world class facilities, cutting-edge technology, and some of the world’s most brilliant medical minds, thanks to his position as a researcher at Rockefeller University.

So Steinman decided to make his own body the ultimate experiment.

He had removed a piece of the tumor that would eventually kill him, and trained his immune cells to track down any hint of the tumour that might have escaped the surgery, like putting hounds on a scent.

On Friday, four-and-a-half years after he was diagnosed with a disease that kills the vast majority of its victims in less than one, that experiment came to an end.

Steinman died at the end of a week in which he continued his work in the lab. It was a testament to the undying optimism of the scientific enterprise, to the unrelenting man, and to the limits of both.”

Steinman’s discovery of dendritic cells and their role in initiating immune responses in the body was “initially met with skepticism,” the Nobel committee observed laconically. The London Telegraph described it more sharply: “Although Steinman and his mentor, Zanvil Cohn, discovered dendritic cells in 1972, it was another six years before the cells’ role in initiating the immune response was more fully understood; and nearly another 20 years before it was generally accepted in wider scientific circles. For much of that time, according to his colleague Ira Mellman, Steinman’s dendritic cell theory was met with “downright nasty hostility.”

The Telegraph said that was because other scientists, lacking his expertise, were unable to reproduce his results. Only when technology improved to the point where others could develop sufficiently large numbers of cells did they begin agreeing with Steinman that dendritic cells were the “primers of the immune system.”

“He didn’t care how many people thought it was wrong,” Mellman said, “but until he’d either proved it or found that he was wrong, he would not stop.”

Steinman was born in Montreal and grew up working the family clothing store on weekends. He received a bachelor’s degree at Montreal’s McGill University in science, and medicine at Harvard. He became director of the Laboratory of Cellular Physiology and Immunology at Rockefeller University and a senior physician at Rockefeller University Hospital. Rockefeller University issued a statement that lauded Steinman and did a good job of explaining his scientific work.

He maintained ties to Montreal over the years. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the Nobel Prize was a “fitting final tribute to his life’s work.” The Montreal Gaette quoted his 92-year-old mother, resident of a Montreal suburb, as saying she was proud of Steinman, “but I have other children, so they’re all equal in my estimation.”

Along with the Nobel Prize, Steinman won numerous awards for his research, including half of the $500,000 Albany Medical Center Prize, the largest award in medicine in the United States.

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org.

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