He was a kind, soft-spoken man whose remarkable life took him from the family store in Quebec’s Eastern Townships to Harvard medical school and lab research that earned him a Nobel Prize.
For years, Ralph Steinman faced resistance from researchers who were skeptical about his seminal discovery in 1973 of dendritic cells, key triggers of the body’s immune response that could be used against a wide range of diseases.
Four years ago, he was able to use his discovery in his own treatment when he was diagnosed with cancer.
His family believes that his life was prolonged thanks to therapy developed from his research, now widely accepted and used to make vaccines.
Three days after he died of pancreatic cancer, Dr. Steinman was awarded the most prestigious accolade in science, a share of this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology.
“It’s been a surreal period. We were all grieving his loss, and then this news, this wonderful news,” his son, Adam Steinman, said in an interview. “It’s a great testament to everything he’s accomplished. He’d want us to be celebrating his life.”
Even being named to the award wasn’t a straightforward matter.
The Nobel Foundation has not bestowed posthumous prizes since 1974. There were several hours of confusion on Monday when the news of Dr. Steinman’s death emerged and the awarding committee reviewed regulations.
In the end, the prize stood.
The foundation said that the rule was made to prevent the award from being handed out posthumously.
The foundation found out about Dr. Steinman’s death four hours after it announced that he and two other researchers, U.S. genetics professor Bruce Beutler and French scientist Jules Hoffmann, would share the $1.5-million prize.
“The decision to award the Nobel Prize to Ralph Steinman was made in good faith, based on the assumption that the Nobel Laureate was alive,” the Nobel foundation said in a statement.
It said the situation was similar to the 1996 prize in economics, when William Vickrey died a few days after the announcement.
Friends and family had known for several years that Dr. Steinman was a potential Nobel laureate.
After he was admitted to hospital last week, Dr. Steinman's children joked with him about fending off death until the prize for medicine was announced.
“We wanted him to be here for this,” his daughter Alexis Steinman told Reuters. “We were like, 'Okay, 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’ve got to hold out for that.'”
Dr. Steinman came from a family with a mercantile tradition. His grandfather operated a salvage business in Old Montreal. His parents owned a store in Sherbrooke, a town 150 kilometres east of Montreal.
On weekends and during the summers, Dr. Steinman would work at the family store. But the family always valued education, and he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at McGill University.
One brother, Seymour, became a lawyer. The other, Mark, went into business, while sister Joni co-founded a health-care consultancy.
Dr. Steinman got a scholarship to Harvard medical school. Then, while doing his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, he met his future wife, Claudia, a social worker.
At the same time, he was accepted for a postdoctoral fellowship at Rockefeller University in New York.
“When you are recruited by the finest research institute in the world, it’s hard to leave,” said his sister-in-law, Linda Stein-Steinman.
“So that’s where he spent his career. He was recognized in Canada for his work, but he was well established in the United States.”
While scientists are often criticized for failing to turn research into solutions that can help in the real world, Dr. Steinman’s Nobel Prize-winning discovery has not only led to dramatic improvements in treatment of disease, but may have helped prolong his own life.
In 1973, Dr. Steinman discovered dendritic cells and found they play a key role in warning the body’s “adaptive” immune system to mount a response, as well as providing fuel for the attack.
It was considered a breakthrough because the body’s adaptive immune system recognizes pathogens and creates memories of how to fight them, which helps improve the body’s immunity.
Figuring out what triggers the adaptive immune system opened up enormous possibilities for using dendritic cells to create strong, targeted responses to pathogens.
The findings “were initially met with skepticism,” according to the official press release announcing the Nobel Prize. But eventually, Dr. Steinman proved he had made a significant discovery.
“I’ve been waiting for him to win the Nobel Prize for some years,” said Phil Gold, professor of medicine at McGill University and an internationally acclaimed researcher who has known Dr. Steinman for years.
When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Dr. Steinman decided to use his body to test some of his theories about using dendritic cells to create a targeted disease response. The idea was that by isolating dendritic cells and exposing them to cancer cells, they would be able to generate a specific immune response against the disease.
“I want to believe that it’s because of that that he lived for four years, which is unusual for anyone with pancreatic cancer,” Dr. Gold said. “I saw him not long ago and he looked marvellously well.”
“One of his great wishes was that people would be building on his research,” Adam Steinman said.
After Dr. Steinman was diagnosed with cancer, he was very involved in deciding the kind of treatment he’d receive, his son said.
Ms. Stein-Steinman said her brother-in-law received post-operative dendritic cell therapy, which is believed to help prevent a recurrence of the cancer and prolong life.
His son credits Dr. Steinman’s work with helping him live “so vibrantly” for years after the cancer diagnosis.
“It was sort of a blessing that he was able to fight cancer for so long and so effectively. He was able to accomplish more things professionally . . .
“He was incredibly busy and vibrant during those four years. He was travelling quite a bit. He was working in the lab up until the final days.”