Page URL:

Nobel prize for scientist who experimented on himself

10 October 2011
Appeared in BioNews 628

The winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2011 were announced on 3 October with an unusual twist – for the first time the accolade has been bestowed on someone posthumously. This is normally against the Nobel Assembly's rules, but Professor Ralph Steinman's untimely death on 30 September occurred after messages had been sent to him informing him of his success. The decision was therefore made to uphold Professor Steinman's award, although sadly he had not received the news before he passed away.

Professor Steinman was awarded half the prize and the other half was awarded jointly to Professor Bruce Beutler and Professor Jules Hoffmann, in recognition of the three men's contribution to our understanding of the immune system. Professor Beutler and Professor Hoffmann's research uncovered a family of genes called Toll-like receptors, which are critical for detecting the presence of bacteria or viruses and triggering an immune reaction. Professor Steinman identified a highly specialised type of immune cell, called dendritic cells, which have formed the basis of experimental cancer therapies.

Remarkably, in the last years of his life, Professor Steinman became a 'human guinea pig' as he collaborated with colleagues at Rockefeller University, New York, to test these therapies, known as dendritic cell-based therapeutic vaccines. One such vaccine is licensed for use in the US against late-stage prostate cancer, and others are in clinical trials for a variety of other cancers.

Dendritic cells act as the 'sentinels' of the immune system, patrolling the body for signs of infections or tumour development. On encountering these things they pass a message to T cells and B cells, which act as the 'soldiers' of the immune system and destroy the infected or cancerous cells.

In 2007, Professor Steinman was diagnosed with incurable metastatic pancreatic cancer. In addition to accepting all available therapies, he asked his clinical lab director at Rockefeller, Dr Sarah Schlesinger, and Dr Michel Nussenzweig, the head of molecular immunology, to trial a therapeutic vaccine on him.

After obtaining permission from the US's Food and Drug Administration, Dr Nussenzweig removed some cells from his tumour and extracted RNA from these cells. The team then grew dendritic cells from blood and bone marrow samples taken from Professor Steinman and treated these cells with the RNA isolated from his tumour.

Professor Steinman's dendritic cells were then transplanted back into his body, where they used the tumour RNA as the 'message' to activate T cells to mount an immune response against his tumour. Although there is no way of knowing whether it was this or the conventional therapies that prolonged his life, Professor Steinman survived for four and a half years with a condition that usually results in death within a year of diagnosis.

Speaking to Reuters, Dr Schlesinger paid tribute to a man who 'felt that human clinical investigation was the highest form of research; that it was critical to engage in it'.

Immunology Prize Overshadowed by Untimely Death of Awardee
Science |  7 October 2011
Insight: Nobel winner's last big experiment: Himself
Reuters |  7 October 2011
Nobel winner used his discovery to keep his own cancer at bay
Sydney Morning Herald |  7 October 2011
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2011
2011 Nobel Prize Announcements |  3 October 2011
15 April 2013 - by Dr Shanya Sivakumaran 
The Nobel prize won by Francis Crick, a British scientist, for his part in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, and a handwritten letter recounting this discovery to his 12-year-old son, have been sold for over $8 million this week....
8 October 2012 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
Professor Sir John Gurdon of the University of Cambridge has been jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on stem cells. He shares the prize for medicine or physiology with Professor Shinya Yamanaka from Japan...
8 May 2012 - by Cait McDonagh 
A gene that usually prevents excessive cell growth may be switched off in aggressive pancreatic cancers, scientists have reported...
3 October 2011 - by Sarah Pritchard 
Sequencing tissue samples from patients with deadly forms of prostate cancer has revealed previously undefined, drug-resistant tumour types that are ten times more mutated than other varieties, report researchers. The findings could help scientists develop screening methods and treatments specific to these 'hypermutated' forms of the disease...
15 October 2007 - by Ailsa Stevens 
Last week the Nobel Prize for Medicine was jointly awarded to three scientists for their pioneering work on embryonic stem cells in mice. The trio, comprising US scientists Mario R. Capecchi and Oliver Smithies, and UK scientist Martin J. Evans, developed a technique known as 'gene targeting...
18 December 2006 - by Dr Jess Buxton 
An international team of researchers has discovered that an altered version of a gene called Palladin causes an inherited form of pancreatic cancer. The findings, published online in the journal PloS Medicine, also reveal that the same gene is involved in sporadic cases of the disease...
to add a Comment.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions

Syndicate this story - click here to enquire about using this story.