Nobel Prize in Medicine Goes to Immunologists

A pioneering researcher was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine Monday, three days after dying of pancreatic cancer without ever knowing he was about to be honored for his immune system work that he had used to prolong his own life.


Ralph Steinman, 1943-2011

Cell biologist Ralph Steinman died just three days before he won the coveted science prize. When the announcement was made this morning, the committee held an emergency meeting since Nobel Prizes are given to living scientists. But they decided to award the prize to Dr. Steinman despite his untimely death because the prize was made in good faith while he was still alive. Only the announcement followed his death.

He shares half of the prize with Bruce Beutler who holds joint appointments at University of Texas Southwestern and at University of California San Diego Scripps Research Institute and with Jules Hoffman, a French researcher who is also the form head of the French National Academy of Sciences.

The Canadian-born Steinman made his mark in 1973 when he discovered a new type of cell called the dendritic cell that has a unique ability to activate immune cells called T-cells.

Dendritic Cell

Dendritic Cell, discovered by Nobel Prize winner Ralph Steinman

T-cells are a critical part of the adaptive immune system, sending antibodies or killer cells to destroy invading infections. They also remember an antigen so the immune system can mobilize its defenses faster the next time it comes under similar attack.

Both Drs. Beutler and Hoffman made their contributions in the late 1990s. First, Hoffman studied how fruit flies fight infection in 1996. Two years later Beutler discovered similar findings in mice, demonstrating that flies and mammals activate innate immunity in similar ways when attacked by germs.

Gerold Schuler, head of the department of dermatology at the University Hospital Erlangen in Germany and Steinman’s former post-doc, told The Scientist magazine that Steinman’s work is worthy of the Nobel Prize. He says Steinman’s advances, “are now crucial to understanding and fighting diseases, notably for designing better vaccines.”

Mouse geneticist Alexander Poltorak at Tufts University says the work that Beutler does is a rare example of exploratory research. While looking for cell receptors for a bacterial byproduct that produces septic shock, Beutler and his team observed that mice with a mutation in a particular gene were resistant to septic shock, a potentially fatal over-stimulation of the immune system.

That gene happened to be quite similar to the Toll gene which Hoffman had discovered in fruit flies a couple years before.

Poltorak, who was the lead author on Beutler’s groundbreaking 1998 Science paper says, “We didn’t have any hypothesis, and that’s the beauty of it.”

Since then, scientists have reported about a dozen discoveries of various Toll-like receptors in humans and mice, each of which recognizes certain types of microbial molecules.

This research is important because mutations in any of these receptors can increase the risk of infections or chronic inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.

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