Earlier this month, one-half of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to immunologist Dr. Ralph Steinman for his work on dendritic cells.
In 1973, in collaboration with Zanvil A. Cohn, Dr. Steinman discovered dendritic cells. He then spent the rest of his career investigating how dendritic cells work and their importance in activating other cells of the immune system. We now know that dendritic cells are the sentinels of the immune system. They monitor their environment and present their “findings” to the active agents, or soldiers, of the immune system, known as T and B lymphocytes. These lymphocytes can then actively respond to the new threat by, among other things, producing antibodies to neutralize an infection. Because of their role in mobilizing the immune system, dendritic cells have been a major focus for designing new therapies and vaccines.
Dr. Steinman’s work on dendritic cells led to new experimental treatments, that he used himself in the attempt to cure his own pancreatic cancer. Tragically, he died of pancreatic cancer only a few days before the Nobel Prize was announced. The Nobel Prize cannot be given to a deceased person but because the committee selected Dr. Steinman as a laureate before he passed away, his Nobel will stand.
Ralph Steinman was born in Montreal and began his university education at McGill University where he graduated with a B.S. degree with honors. He went on to obtain his M.D. from Harvard Medical School. He joined the Rockefeller University in 1970 as a postdoctoral fellow and joined the faculty there in 1972. He was appointed to full Professor in 1988 and became Director of Laboratory of Cellular Physiology and Immunology in 1998. Dr. Steinman ran a productive research lab right up until he died, publishing over 380 papers, including at least seven in 2011.