Three scientists shared the Nobel Prize for medicine yesterday for groundbreaking work on the immune system that the jury said opened up a new front for attacking cancer and other diseases.
The winners are Bruce Beutler of the US, Luxembourg-born Jules Hoffmann, who is a naturalized French citizen, and Ralph Steinman of Canada.
“This year’s Nobel laureates have revolutionized our understanding of the immune system by discovering key principles for its activation,” the jury said in a statement.
However, when the committee awarded the prize it was not aware that Steinman died just days before, the head of the committee said.
Nobel regulations do not allow the award to be given posthumously, but Goeran Hansson said the committee stood by its choice.
Steinman, 68, died of pancreatic cancer on Friday, according to Rockefeller University in New York where he worked.
Hansson, the head of the Nobel assembly at Karolinska Institutet, said the committee had just found out about his passing.
“We just got the information. What we can do now is only to regret that he could not experience the joy,” Hansson said. “We don’t name new winners, that was our decision.”
The three were lauded for their work on the body’s complex defense system in which signaling molecules unleash antibodies and killer cells to respond to invading microbes.
Understanding this process throws open the door to new drugs and also tackling immune disorders, such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease, in which the body mysteriously attacks itself.
“Their work has opened up new avenues for the development of prevention and therapy against infections, cancer and inflammatory diseases,” the jury said. “These discoveries will also help us to understand why the immune system can attack our own tissues, thus providing clues for novel treatment of inflammatory diseases.”
Steinman won half of the 10 million Swedish kronor (US$1.48 million) prize for work on the second, slower line of defense, known as the adaptive response.
In 1973, he discovered a new type of cell, the dendritic cell, and demonstrated its role in unleashing T cells — the “heavy artillery” of the immune system.
T cells are part of an immunological memory, enabling a faster and powerful mobilization of defenses the next time the same microorganism attacks.
Steinman, who also won the 2007 Lasker Prize for his work, showed that the immune system was able to attack harmful micro-organisms while staying clear of the body’s own molecules.
Beutler, 55, and Hoffmann, 70, share the other half of the prize.
They discovered receptor proteins that activate the first step in the body’s immune system.
Known as the innate response, it acts like a blunt instrument, seeking to swiftly block an assault through inflammation.
Hoffman’s work in 1996, at a research laboratory in Strasbourg, France, on how fruit flies combat infections.
Meanwhile, Beutler expanded on that discovery in 1998 when at the University of Texas he discovered that a receptor called LPS also acted in the same way in mice, thus proving that mammals and fruit flies shared a common immune pathway.
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