Insight: Nobel winner's last big experiment: Himself

Thu Oct 6, 2011 6:20pm EDT
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By Julie Steenhuysen and Michelle Nichols

CHICAGO/NEW YORK (Reuters) In the last few years of his life, Dr. Ralph Steinman made himself into an extraordinary human lab experiment, testing a series of unproven therapies - including some he helped to create - as he waged a very personal battle with pancreatic cancer.

The winner of the 2011 Nobel prize in medicine, who died only three days before the award was announced on Monday, ultimately tried as many as eight unproven treatments.

"He felt that human clinical investigation was the highest form of research, that it was critical to engage in it," Dr. Sarah Schlesinger, Steinman's clinical lab director and colleague at New York's Rockefeller University, told Reuters. "He had great criticism of how slowly the process moved ... he was impatient with data and mice," she added.

Friends and colleagues said Steinman was devoted to research that would make a difference in the lives of people.

That became more apparent after his own cancer diagnosis, recalls Dr. Louis Weiner, director of Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, D.C., who worked with Steinman on a cancer immunology panel through the American Association of Cancer Research.

"Because he was looking down the barrel of his own gun in a sense, he shared the cancer patient's sense of urgency that we identify new and effective treatments," Weiner said.

"He didn't want to be held hostage to failed concepts, to petty obstacles that interfere with the development of effective therapies. He wanted to see effective treatments made available to people so that they could be helped."

Steinman spent his entire career on immunology research for which he won the Nobel Prize, an honor he shares with American Bruce Beutler and French biologist Jules Hoffmann for their contributions to explaining the immune system.   Continued...

<p>Nobel prize for medicine winner, Canadian-born Ralph Steinman, is seen in an undated handout photo. REUTERS/Zach Veilleux/Rockefeller University/Handout</p>