Dr Ralph Steinman, father of dendritic cells and first posthumous nobel prize winner since 1961
October 4, 2011 6:35 AM   Subscribe

In 1973, while working as a young post-doc in Zanvil A. Cohn's laboratory in Rockefeller University, Ralph Steinman described a completely new immune cell within the lymphoid organs of mice (original paper can be read here). Based on it's distinctive shape, with it's many branched projections, he named the cell "dendritic cell" (derived from the Greek word for "tree"). Such began a prolific and illustrious career, devoted to the further understanding of these cells, which transformed the way the world understood how the immune system worked. Yesterday, Dr Steinman was awarded the The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2011 "for his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity". Tragically, he had died just three days earlier of pancreatic cancer, and never learned that he was to be awarded science’s top honour.

In a remarkable move by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which does not normally grant awards to people who have died, Canadian-born Steinman will posthumously receive half of the $1.5-million award, since the committee was unaware that he had died and that the announcement was made "in good faith".

Ralph Steinman is widely acknowledged within the scientific community as the "Father of dendritic cells". Much of his career was devoted to proving that these cells provided the "missing link" that enabled white blood cells to attack infection and disease with precision. His seminal review on the topic, published in 1998 with Jacques Banchereau, currently has 9368 citations (most scientist thing they're rockstars if they get over 100). His work, along with the work of others (many of whom began as his students), paved the way for dendritic cell immunotherapy as a treatment for cancer, which Steinman had himself been using to combat his illness for the past 5 years.
posted by kisch mokusch (25 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm glad I restrained myself from posting this yesterday, as you've done a much better job than I would have.
posted by exogenous at 6:43 AM on October 4, 2011


Great post. I'm glad the committee went ahead with the award, for the family if nothing else.
posted by bitmage at 6:47 AM on October 4, 2011


In a remarkable move by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which does not normally grant awards to people who have died, Canadian-born Steinman will posthumously receive half of the $1.5-million award, since the committee was unaware that he had died and that the announcement was made "in good faith".

I foresee a great future for him as an unguessable answer in Trivial Pursuit.
posted by DU at 6:47 AM on October 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Quickly scanning this, I thought it was a post about Ralph Steadman.
I always find these posts fascinating, I learn new stuff I didn't know before.
.
posted by Mcable at 6:59 AM on October 4, 2011


since the committee was unaware that he had died and that the announcement was made "in good faith".

This is so typically Swedish. Nothing was done improperly, even though obviously it was done improperly.

The Nobel Statues are quite clear that the prize may not be awarded posthumously, but the committee has bent the rules in the past. Dag Hammarsköid was awarded the Peace Prize posthumously on the specious argument that he had been alive when nominated.
posted by three blind mice at 7:11 AM on October 4, 2011


I can even see "alive when nominated" as a reasonable metric -- this avoids people rallying for Newton to get the Nobel prize in math, or Jesus to get the peace prize.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:26 AM on October 4, 2011


There is no Nobel Prize in math. Newton could get it for Physics, though.

And why would Jesus get the Peace Prize? I don't mean that in a "xians are murderers" way, I mean it in a "even assuming Jesus was exactly as described in the Bible, what did he actually DO that would qualify him for a prize" way? Do they give out Peace Prizes for talking a good game?
posted by DU at 7:35 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Nobel Statues are quite clear that the prize may not be awarded posthumously, but the committee has bent the rules in the past.

Technical nit. At what point is the prize actually awarded? I'm pretty confident that the decision to give the award to Dr. Steinman was made some time ago -- when he was alive. If that counts as the moment of award, then the Nobel Statues are not being violated.

If the act of award is the announcement, or the actual ceremony where the medal is granted, then yes, there's that issue.

And, I think the Swedes are being perfectly straightforward. They made the decision to award the medal to him, they had no idea that he'd died, and pancreatic cancer is an absolute beast. In most cases, you are completely asymptomatic until the cancer metastasizes, and by that time, it's game over. They may not have even know he'd had cancer.

I think the award should be made -- the work is clearly worthy.
posted by eriko at 7:35 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, Obama...
posted by Bromius at 7:36 AM on October 4, 2011


Do they give out Peace Prizes for talking a good game?

Ha! Good one, DU!
posted by Floydd at 7:37 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


rmd1023 wrote: this avoids people rallying for Newton to get the Nobel prize in math

No nobel for math. Just medicine, literature, peace, physics and chemistry (economics was added later under a different category called "The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel"). Maths gets the Fields medal (pretty puny money prize compared to the Nobel, though) or the recently established Abel prize (which has a money prize comparable to the Nobel).

None of which is relevant for the point you made, or the purpose of the thread, of course. Just thought I'd make the point.
posted by scunning at 7:44 AM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Nobel Statues are quite clear that the prize may not be awarded posthumously, but the committee has bent the rules in the past. Dag Hammarsköid was awarded the Peace Prize posthumously on the specious argument that he had been alive when nominated.

No, the rules were strictly followed in that case. Hammarskjöld was awarded the Prize in 1961, and at the time the rule was "alive when nominated." The rule was changed to "alive when the Prize is announced" in 1974.

The current case is a better example of bending the rules, in that the current rule is "alive when the prize is announced." (The Wikipedia article currently reads "thought alive at the time of the October announcement," but that's uncited, and not a formulation I've heard before today.) Which creates an awkward situation in that Steinman was dead at the time of the announcement, but the Nobel committee didn't know it. I don't see any good solution here: awarding the prize to Steinman technically breaks the rules, but not awarding it seems callous.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:47 AM on October 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


DevilsAdvocate: Thanks for the clarification. Yes, it appears that the award is technically incorrect. I vote we technically get over it. :-)
posted by eriko at 7:48 AM on October 4, 2011


Do they give out Peace Prizes for talking a good game?

See: Barack Obama.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:49 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:50 AM on October 4, 2011


Why was the rule changed in 1974? It seems like if they not only specifically have a rule about the time of announcement but actually deliberately changed it from something else to that, they'd do a little checking at the time of the announcement.
posted by DU at 7:55 AM on October 4, 2011


See: Barack Obama.

I like the theory that Obama was basically awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for defeating McCain-Palin and thereby averting World War III.
posted by joe lisboa at 8:32 AM on October 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


And why would Jesus get the Peace Prize?

I didn't say he would get it. I said people would rally for him to get it, in the same way that some subset of Christians were rallying for Christ to be named "person of the century" for last century in some poll or other. Limiting the prizes to people who are (or perhaps were very recently) alive restricts the candidate pool.

And yes, yes, there is no Nobel prize in math. Typing before drinking sufficient tea is never a good idea.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:38 AM on October 4, 2011


I like the theory that Obama was basically awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for defeating McCain-Palin and thereby averting World War III.

This theory has become my favorite example of "Ha-ha, only serious."
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:41 AM on October 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


If nominees are removed from consideration if they are learned to have died after being nominated, candidates really should go into hiding. There's big money and prestige at stake; somebody could strap a dynamite bomb to their car.
posted by longsleeves at 10:02 AM on October 4, 2011


This is so sad, although thankfully he was here to get the Lasker (and many know that's the precursor to the Nobel). He was a lovely person, I worked with him briefly to help write this piece for Cerebrum. It's an argument for more physician/scientists like himself to take treatment from bench to bedside, which describes his work as well.

I learned a ton while writing it, largely due to his clear way of explaining things. I imagine he was a great teacher.
posted by Maias at 10:34 AM on October 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Five easy steps to a Nobel prize:

1
2
3
4
5

He's pretty much got it by part 3, though I don't think that the full importance of what he'd found was realized until the late nineties or early 2000s.
posted by monocyte at 2:31 PM on October 4, 2011


I don't think that the full importance of what he'd found was realized until the late nineties or early 2000s.

In the Jaques Banchereau link, he thinks 1992 (not least of which because it coincides with his own 1992 Nature paper). Certainly, the late 80s and early 90s saw some notable changes in the field. In particular, advances in flow cytometry and the wider use of TCR-transgenic mice saw a greater level of sophistication in immunological research, and allowed scientists to properly address the open questions about dendritic cells (DCs). Which meant that DC biology really took off in the late 90s, and it remains an area of "hot research" to this day. Importantly, before all of this, Steinman's lab spent over a decade working on DCs, trying to convince the world of their importance. If you look through his publications during the 80s you can really appreciate how little they knew at the time, and how blunt the tools were that they used to try and work out their function. In the end, he backed a winner; in the last decade there have been a number of papers that have definitively demonstrated the importance of DCs in shaping adaptive immune responses. There's obviously a lot more to learn about these cells, but one could argue we are 10 years closer to the answers we seek than we would have been without Ralph Steinman.

I just hope the circumstances surrounding his award don't overshadow his achievements.
posted by kisch mokusch at 3:56 PM on October 4, 2011


In the Jaques Banchereau link, he thinks 1992.

I think that was the case among cellular immunologists, but as I understand it prior to the 90s cellular immunologists were much less ubiquitous than they (we?) are now. In just getting into immunology as a college freshman in 2001, macrophages were still frequently cited as the major APCs in teaching materials- and I kept hearing this from non-professional immunologists into medical school. That APCs were so hugely important, and the intense capacity of DC to stimulate immune responses relative to any other cell type, was recognized by Steinman early on, but the advances you cited, along with Inaba's and others' development of techniques for making DC in vitro, really helped make this clear to everyone.

I just hope the circumstances surrounding his award don't overshadow his achievements.

I think in a perverse way it will serve to emphasize them, at least in the near term-- the unusual circumstances of the prize will likely result in greater interest in general, and Steinman's will be a better remembered name than Bruce Beutler's or Jules Hoffman's. Which, like you say, is probably as it should be- though Bruce's forward genetics approach is one of those conceptually simple/insane processes that could deserve a Nobel of its own, Steinman really quickly came to understand what he'd found and was able to turn it into a vanguard piece of scientific knowledge.
posted by monocyte at 5:23 PM on October 4, 2011


In just getting into immunology as a college freshman in 2001, macrophages were still frequently cited as the major APCs in teaching materials- and I kept hearing this from non-professional immunologists into medical school.

Oh, the translation of DC research into textbooks has been woeful. As a DC biologist, I still can't stand what's written in the modern Immunology textbooks, and when I see some of the things written in medical texts, such as the Merck Manual, I just shudder. I personally think macrophage researchers have a lot to do with that. I think it was an affront to have one of their sexier functions (i.e. initiating adaptive immune responses) taken away from them, and they fought it tooth and nail. There are still mac researchers (and one in particular who is especially vocal) out there who consider DCs a complete myth! Which is ultimately good for the field, because it forces DC researchers make the most convincing case possible, but it obviously slows down the general acceptance.

And you are correct, I was referring to the understanding by research immunologists, not the wider research and teaching communities.
posted by kisch mokusch at 5:51 PM on October 4, 2011


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