Scitech  2011 Nobel Prizes – Physiology or Medicine: a rare exception

Physiology or Medicine: a rare exception

Almost 150 years ago Alfred Nobel patented dynamite – a mixture of nitroglycerin and an inert substance (like dirt). This invention amassed him a fortune. Years later, when his brother died, a French newspaper erroneously published Nobel’s own obituary, calling him a “merchant of death.” Worried about his legacy and potentially plagued with guilt, Nobel donated the majority of his estate to the creation of the Nobel Prizes after his death. Each year, the Nobel Prize committee gathers together to choose laureates for physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. Astute readers may wonder why there is no Nobel Prize for math – legend has it that  Nobel never got over the fact that a mathmatician stole away one of his lovers.


Nearly 50 years ago, a man by the name of Ralph M. Steinman graduated with a B.Sc in Honours Biochemistry from McGill. Today, thousands of students at McGill, and all over the world, are studying the groundbreaking discoveries made by that very same man.

On Monday, October 4, the Nobel Prize Committee announced the recipients for 2011. Among the new laureates were Bruce Beutler, Jules Hoffman, and Ralph Steinman, who were jointly awarded the prize for Medicine or Physiology: one half to Beutler and Hoffman “for their discoveries concerning activation of innate immunity” and the other to Steinman “for his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity.” It was only a few hours after this announcement was made that the Committee received news of Dr. Steinman’s untimely death, his four-year battle with pancreatic cancer had ended just three days earlier.

This drew some last-minute deliberations among the committee, stemming from a rule that prevents prizes from being deliberately awarded posthumously. This rule prevented Rosalind Franklin, whose work with x-ray crystallography contributed to the discovery of the helical structure of DNA, from receiving a Nobel in 1962. At the time Nobel Prizes were not awarded to women and she passed away four years before a Nobel Prize was awarded to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins for the development of the DNA model. Steinman’s extremely unique situation – wherein he was awarded prior to his death – makes him one of only three posthumous Nobel Prize recipients in history.

Up until his death, Steinman worked as an immunologist at Rockefeller University, studying the mechanisms of dendritic cells in tolerance and immunity and how this could be applied in medicine. Dendritic cells play a crucial role in immune response, as they capture and process antigens, either material from self or the environment. They then present these antigens on their surface and, in doing so, help the body to differentiate “self” from “foreign”, preventing autoimmunological attack. They also act as the link between the innate and adaptive immune responses.

The other two recipients of the prize, Beutler and Hoffman, were also recognized for their contributions to immunology. Their research focused on the initial stages of the body’s immune response. The work of all three of these new Nobel Laureates paves the way for the development and improvement of treatments used to fight infectious diseases such as HIV-AIDS and other conditions, such as cancer. While this research may have been too late for Steinman, himself – he had been using his research to develop immunotherapy vaccines in order to treat his own cancer – it paves the way for future therapies.