Nobel Prize in Medicine Goes to 3 Immunologists

October 03, 2011

October 3, 2011 — The Nobel prize for medicine was awarded today to 3 scientists whose discoveries about the immune system are expanding how clinicians prevent and treat infection, inflammatory diseases, and cancer, including a form that claimed the life of one of the new Nobel laureates 3 days ago.

Dr. Bruce Beutler. Scripps Research Institute

Bruce Beutler, MD, and Jules Hoffmann, PhD, received a half-share in this year's prize for discovering receptor proteins that can spot bacteria and other microorganisms and then activate the body's innate immunity to defend itself. The other half of the $1.5 million prize went to the late Ralph Steinman, MD, who discovered the dendritic cells that turn on the T cells at the heart of active immunity, which creates an immunologic memory against invaders.

Dr. Steinman, age 68, a cell biologist at Rockefeller University in New York City, died on September 30 after a 4-year bout with pancreatic cancer. He extended his life with a form of immunotherapy that incorporated his research on dendritic cells, according to a Rockefeller University press release.

Dr. Jules Hoffmann. Pascal Disdier/CNRS Photothèque

The Nobel committee at Sweden's Karolinksa Institute, responsible for awarding the prize in physiology or medicine, selected Dr. Steinman before learning of his death, according to the Nobel Foundation. Nobel prizes are not deliberately awarded on a posthumous basis, but the Nobel Foundation announced today that Dr. Steinman would remain a Nobel laureate because the decision to select him "was made in good faith, based on the assumption that [he] was still alive." The organization noted that Dr. Steinman's situation resembles an exception in the Nobel rules that allows a prize to be presented to someone who is named a laureate while alive, but dies before the prize ceremony.

"The Future Translation Is Obvious"

The work of Dr. Beutler and Dr. Hoffmann has "triggered an explosion of research in innate immunity" and the identification of dozen or so different receptor proteins called Toll-like receptors in humans and mice, according to the Nobel Foundation. Each Toll-like receptor recognizes certain types of molecules found in trespassing microorganisms. Genetic variations in these Toll-like receptors come with an increased risk for infection or chronic inflammatory disease.

Dr. Ralph Steinman. Rockefeller University

Dr. Beutler is a professor of genetics and immunology at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. Dr. Hoffmann is a senior researcher emeritus and professor at the National Center for Scientific Research in Strasbourg, France.

Dr. Steinman's research into dendritic cells figured into the development of sipuleucel-T (Provenge, Dendreon) for advanced prostate cancer, the first therapeutic vaccine for cancer.

All 3 scientists made "substantial contributions" to the field of immunology, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, said in an interview with Medscape Medical News.

For the most part, researchers are still in the early stages of turning the discoveries of the latest Nobel laureates into new vaccines and treatments for infectious disease, but "the future translation is obvious," said Dr. Fauci. "It's absolutely going to happen."

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