Cancer kills Nobel physician before he hears of prize

Tue Oct 4, 2011 8:03am EDT
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By Patrick Lannin and Mia Shanley

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - A scientist who won the Nobel prize for medicine Monday used his own discoveries to treat himself for cancer, but died of the disease just days before he could be told of the award.

Calling it "bittersweet" news, colleagues of Canadian-born Ralph Steinman at New York's Rockefeller University said he had prolonged his own life with a new therapy based on his prize-winning research into the body's immune system.

The 68-year-old physician, who joked last week with his family about hanging on until the annual prize declaration, died Friday after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer -- a fact the Nobel committee was not told until hours after it announced the 2011 award was shared by Steinman and two others.

He never knew his life's work had been crowned with the highest accolade science can bestow, becoming the first person in half a century to win a posthumous Nobel prize -- after a day of consternation in Stockholm, where the Nobel rules have long insisted, in principle, on recognizing only the living.

"We wanted him to be here for this," said his daughter Alexis Steinman, 34. "We were like 'OK Dad, I know things aren't going well but the Nobel, they are going to announce it next Monday'. And he's like: 'I know I have got to hold out for that. They don't give it to you if you have passed away.

"'I got to hold out for that.'"

The Nobel Committee spent the morning calling Steinman to offer the traditional congratulations only to discover they faced a "unique" situation. After anguished consultations on the fate of the prize, and money worth three quarters of a million dollars, they decided it would go to Steinman's heirs.

Two other pioneers whose work on the immune system has also driven ground-breaking possibilities for curbing infections and cancers, American Bruce Beutler and Jules Hoffman from France, shared the other half of the 10 million-crown prize.   Continued...

<p>Nobel prize for medicine winner Canadian-born Ralph Steinman. REUTERS/Zach Veilleux/Rockefeller University</p>