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Westporter Wins Nobel Prize for Medicine After Death

UPDATE A Westport man who died three days ago today shared in winning the Nobel Prize in medicine for discoveries about the immune system that led to new ways to treat and prevent infectious illnesses and cancer.

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Ralph Steinman: Westporter honored for 1973 discovery. Contributed photo

Canadian-born Ralph M. Steinman, 68, whose death was disclosed after the Nobel announcement, shared the 10 million-kronor ($1.5 million) award prize with American Bruce Beutler and French scientist Jules Hoffmann. Steinman has been affiliated with Rockefeller University in New York since 1970. The university disclosed his death hours after the Nobel announcement.

The Nobel committee had been unaware of Steinman’s death. But after an emergency meeting, the Nobel Foundation said the award would stand, likening it to a death between announcement of the award and the award ceremony—which its rules permit.

Steinman died Friday of pancreatic cancer, according to Rockefeller University, which said he had been treated with immunotherapy based on his discovery of dendritic cells two decades earlier.

The cells help regulate adaptive immunity, an immune system response that purges invading microorganisms from the body.

“He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago, and his life was extended using a dendritic-cell based immunotherapy of his own design,” Rockefeller University said in a statement posted on its website.

The Nobel statutes do not allow posthumous awards unless a laureate dies after the announcement but before the Dec. 10 award ceremony. That happened in 1996 when economics winner William Vickrey died a few days after the announcement.

“The Nobel Prize to Ralph Steinman was made in good faith, based on the assumption that the Nobel laureate was alive,” a Nobel Foundation statement said.

“The Nobel Foundation thus believes that what has occurred is more reminiscent of the example in the statutes concerning a person who has been named as a Nobel Laureate and has died before the actual Nobel Prize Award Ceremony.”

“The Rockefeller University is delighted that the Nobel Foundation has recognized Ralph Steinman for his seminal discoveries concerning the body’s immune responses,” said Rockefeller 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. Our thoughts are with Ralph’s wife, children and family.”

“We are all so touched that our father’s many years of hard work are being recognized with a Nobel Prize,” said his daughter, Alexis Steinman, according to the Rockefeller University website.

“He devoted his life to his work and his family, and he would be truly honored.”

“Ralph’s research has laid the foundation for numerous discoveries in the critically important field of immunology, and it has led to innovative new approaches in how we treat cancer, infectious diseases and disorders of the immune system,” Tessier-Lavigne said.

Nobel officials said they believed it was the first time that a laureate had died before the announcement without the committee’s knowledge.

“I think you can safely say that this hasn’t happened before,” Nobel Foundation spokeswoman Annika Pontikis told the AP.

Steinman’s Nobel Prize was not the first with a Westport connection. In 1930, novelist Sinclair P. Lewis was living in a rented house in Westport when it was announced he had become the first writer from the United States to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Steinman was honored for his 1973 discovery of dendritic cells, which help regulate adaptive immunity, a stage of the immune system’s response when invading microorganisms are purged from the body.

Beutler and Hoffmann were cited for their discoveries in the 1990s of receptor proteins that can recognize bacteria and other microorganisms as they enter the body. The proteins activate the first line of defense in the immune system, known as innate immunity.

“Their work has opened up new avenues for the development of prevention and therapy against infections, cancer and inflammatory disease,” the citation said.

Beutler, born in 1957, is professor of genetics and immunology at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.

Hoffmann, 70, headed a research laboratory in Strasbourg, France, between 1974 and 2009 and served as president of the French National Academy of Sciences between 2007-2008.

Steinman has received numerous other awards and recognitions for his life-long work on dendritic cells, such as the Albert Lasker Award For Basic Medical Research (2007), the Gairdner Foundation International Award (2003), and the Cancer Research Institute William B. Coley Award (1998), according to Wikipedia.

In addition, he was made a member of Institute of Medicine (U.S.A.; elected 2002) and the National Academy of Sciences (U.S.A.; elected 2001).

Steinman received a Bachelor of Science degree from McGill University and received his MD in 1968 from Harvard Medical School. He completed his internship and residency at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Steinman lived with his wife Claudia, a real estate agent with Jillian Klaff Homes, on North Avenue in Westport since the mid-1980s. Their three children, son Adam and twins Alexis and Lesley, are graduates of Staples High School, a short walking distance from their home.

2 thoughts on “Westporter Wins Nobel Prize for Medicine After Death

  1. Claudia: my sincerest condolences to you and your family. I learned of your husband’s passing shortly after my comment above was published and prior to WestportNow updating the news article. It truly is bittersweet.

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