SARANAC LAKE - A pioneering researcher and longtime member of the Trudeau Institute Board of Trustees was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine Monday, three days after dying of pancreatic cancer without ever knowing he was about to be honored.
The Nobel committee said it was unaware that Canadian-born cell biologist Ralph Steinman had already died when it awarded the prize to him, American Bruce Beutler and French scientist Jules Hoffmann.
Since the committee is only supposed to consider living scientists, the Nobel Foundation held an emergency meeting Monday and said the decision on the $1.5 million prize will remain unchanged.
The late Ralph Steinman (seated, center), winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize for medicine, sits with other members of Trudeau Institute’s Scientific Advisory Board in October 2009 on the Trudeau campus in Saranac Lake.
(Photo — Alice Vera)
"The Nobel Prize to Ralph Steinman was made in good faith, based on the assumption that the Nobel laureate was alive," the foundation said.
Steinman, 68, joined the Trudeau board in 1981 and remained on it for 30 years until he stepped down this year because of poor health. He was chairman of the Saranac Lake-based biomedical research institute's scientific advisory board at the time of his death.
Trudeau board President Benjamin Brewster said Steinman had a profound influence on the institute's direction and success.
"This is a major loss for the world of science and for Trudeau Institute," Brewster said in a prepared statement. "Many will agree with me when I say that Dr. Steinman was the very best advocate for the Trudeau Institute. We will miss him greatly."
At the same time, Brewster lauded the accomplishments that led Steinman to be awarded the Nobel Prize, calling him a "renowned scientist who blazed new trails in cell biology and immunology."
Steinman died Friday, according to Rockefeller University in New York, where he served as head of the Center for Immunology and Immune Diseases. He underwent therapy based on his discovery of the immune system's dendritic cells, for which he won the prize, the university said.
"He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago, and his life was extended using a dendritic-cell based immunotherapy of his own design," the university said.
Robert North, a former Trudeau faculty member and director who lives in Saranac Lake, called Steinman "a close friend and a brilliant scientist."
"He's highly deserving (of the Nobel Prize)," North told the Enterprise Monday. "His discoveries are unique and profound in terms of understanding the immune system and how it works."
During his tenure as a trustee, North said Steinman was skilled at interpreting, for non-scientists on the board, the significance of what the institute was doing scientifically. He was a frequent visitor to Saranac Lake, North said.
"He liked the Adirondacks; that's for sure," North said.
Vince Fischetti, a fellow Trudeau trustee and scientific advisory board member, and a longtime colleague at Rockefeller University, said Steinman's research was groundbreaking. He called it a shame Steinman didn't live to learn that he was awarded the Nobel Prize.
"When I heard this morning that the Nobel Prize was awarded to Ralph Steinman, I said, 'Fantastic. He deserved it,'" Fischetti said. "Then in the next sentence, they said Ralph had passed away, and I hadn't heard that until this morning. So, it's a mixed bag of sadness and happiness that he did receive it."
Fischetti said Steinman was a mentor and an advisor to scientists at Trudeau.
"Ralph was instrumental in keeping the science to a very high degree in that institution, absolutely," Fischetti said.
Nobel Foundation Chairman Lars Heikensten said the medicine prize committee didn't know Steinman was dead when it chose him.
"It is incredibly sad news," he 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."
Steinman is survived by his wife Claudia and their children Alexis, Lesley and Adam.
"We are all so touched that our father's many years of hard work are being recognized with a Nobel Prize," Alexis Steinman said in the Rockefeller University statement. "He devoted his life to his work and his family, and he would be truly honored."
The other two winners of the Nobel Prize for medicine, 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 medicine award kicked off a week of Nobel Prize announcements and will be followed by the physics prize today, chemistry on Wednesday, literature on Thursday and the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. The winners of the economics award will be announced on Monday.