STOCKHOLM — A Canadian-born scientist was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday for his discoveries about the immune system, but his university announced hours later that he died three days ago.
His death initially put the prize in jeopardy, because the Nobel bylaws don't allow for posthumous awards. But the Nobel committee ruled during a special meeting today to make an exception in Ralph Steinman's case.
Steinman, 68, who shared the prize with American Bruce Beutler and French scientist Jules Hoffmann, died Friday of pancreatic cancer, acccording 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.
Nobel committee member Goran Hansson said the Nobel committee didn't know Steinman was dead when it chose him as a winner.
"It is incredibly sad news," Hansson said. "We can only regret that he didn't have the chance to receive the news he had won the Nobel Prize. Our thoughts are now with his family."
The trio's discoveries have enabled the development of improved vaccines against infectious diseases. In the long term they could also yield better treatments of cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and chronic inflammatory diseases, hansson said.
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, and activate the first line of defense in the immune system, known as innate immunity.
The discoveries have helped scientists understand why the immune system sometimes attacks its own tissues, paving the way for new ways to fight inflammatory diseases, Hansson said.
"They have made possible the development of new methods for preventing and treating disease, for instance with improved vaccines against infections and in attempts to stimulate the immune system to attack tumors," the committee said.
No vaccines are on the market yet, but Hansson told AP that vaccines against hepatitis are in the pipeline. "Large clinical trials are being done today," he said.
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