Science grad’s work on immune system rewarded by Nobel Prize Committee
By Katherine Gombay
In every picture, Dr. Ralph Steinman is smiling. And according to Dr. Devi Banerjee of the MUHC, who did her post-doctoral research at New York’s Rockefeller University with Dr. Steinman, the illustrious scientist who was awarded a Nobel Prize just days after he died on Sept. 30, the smile was always present. “He was very driven, and thought about science constantly,” said Banerjee. “But he never came across as being arrogant about everything he knew.”
Dr. Phil Gold of the Faculty of Medicine echoes this sentiment. “He was a real mensch, and a brilliant scientist.”
The Nobel Prize Committee recognized Steinman’s contribution to medical research by awarding him a share of the 2011 prize for Medicine or Physiology, along with U.S. scientist Bruce Beutler and Luxembourg-born researcher Jules Hoffmann. The three scientists had long been researching the immune response by which man and other animals defend themselves against attack by bacteria and other microorganisms.
An untimely loss
Dr. Steinman died of pancreatic cancer on Friday, Sept. 30. The Nobel Prize Committee, which does not give out posthumous awards, unaware of his death, made the announcement on Monday, Oct. 3. The Committee decided to uphold the granting of the prize since at the time the decision was made, the researcher was still alive.
“On behalf of McGill, I wish to extend our profound condolences to the family and friends on the passing of one of our eminent alumni, Dr. Ralph Steinman,” said Heather Munroe-Blum, Principal and Vice-Chancellor.
“His outstanding work in immunology and discovery of the key role dendritic cells play in immune processes has led to a number of significant potential therapies for a variety of diseases, including cancer,” added Munroe-Blum. “McGill is always proud when one of our own goes on to great achievement and success. Our delight at his many accomplishments is tempered by sadness at this most untimely loss.”
The Nobel citation states, “Ralph Steinman discovered the dendritic cells of the immune system and their unique capacity to activate and regulate adaptive immunity, the later stage of the immune response during which microorganisms are cleared from the body.”
Dr. Steinman coined the term “dendritic” in 1973, to describe the function of cells whose primary work is to process antigen material and present it on the surface to other cells of the immune system. “The work of the three scientists has been pivotal to the development of improved types of vaccines against infectious diseases and novel approaches to fighting cancer,” continued the Nobel citation.
“We are all so touched that our father’s hard work is being recognized with a Nobel Prize,” his daughter, Alexis Steinman, said in a statement. “He devoted his life to his work and his family, and he would be truly honoured.”