Ralph M. Steinman - Brain behind dendritic cells and the first posthumous Nobel Laureate

Venkata Shravan Kumar Indurthi
by Venkata Shravan Kumar Indurthi

One of the reasons I am in love with the subject immunology is the complexity of the subject. Whenever I read about the human immune system it makes me wonder how a system can be activated, regulated and be down regulated so intricately. The other reason of my fascination to immunology is even after a considerable amount of research and some great discoveries there is so much we do not know about immune system. The complexity of immunology is also reflected in the number of scientists winning “The Noble Prize” in this field. Till date there have been close to thirty immunologists who have won “The Nobel Prize” in the field of physiology or medicine, E.A. Von Behring being the first in 1901 for his work on the serum therapy and the latest being in 2011 and I suspect many more Nobel prizes would be won by immunologists in the coming years.

In 2011 “The Noble Prize” in physiology or medicine was shared, one half jointly went to Bruce A. Beutler and Jules A. Hoffmann "for their discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity" and the other half to Ralph M. Steinman "for his discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity”. Both the discoveries were vital and contribute a great deal to our current understanding of the immune system. Being in class basic immunology class (MICR 670) I was thrilled when I heard immunologists won the Nobel prize. When I was searching around for the work of the scientists and their background I was particularly fascinated reading the work of Dr. Ralph M. Steinman as dendritic cells play an amazing role in antigen presentation and T-cell activation. Their antigen presentation is so complex and professional, no wonder they are called professional antigen presenting cells. I then came across an article which reported Dr. Steinman died by pancreatic cancer two days before the prize was announced and the Nobel committee was unaware of this. I was initially shocked and then saddened, being a grad student and a young researcher I know what it takes to get to that level and knowing that a Nobel prize is not given posthumously my initial reaction was the prize would be revoked. This is very unique situation in which the Nobel prize committee has never been. Never in the 110 year old history of the Nobel prize has a nominee died without the committee being aware.

I was relieved when I read that the Nobel prize was not revoked and the committee decided to award Dr. Steinman the prize making him the first Nobel laureate to be awarded the prize posthumously. His daughter was quoted saying Dr. Steinman was joking before his death saying “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." my heart was filled with sorrow after reading this, it would have been fitting if he would have been alive to receive the prize to see his work getting recognized or it would have been nice had he atleast known he had won the Nobel prize. Nobel prize is a symbol of triumph, it is a recognition of excellence and an achievement of the highest honor and I guess never before was there so much sorrow associated with this prize.

His story is inspirational. He comes from an ordinary Jewish Canadian family with no scientific background and to win the Nobel prize is just phenomenal. He was a man who just loved his research and believed in what he did, and in fact the treatment he was receiving for pancreatic cancer was based on his research on immunotherapy it would have been great if he could have survived. Thank you for inspiring me Dr. Steinman R.I.P.