3 Scientists Win Nobel For Immune System Studies

Oct 3, 2011
Originally published on October 4, 2011 6:19 am


LYNN NEARY, host: Three scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their work on understanding the immune system. However, it turns out one of the scientists died several days ago, which could mean that he was not eligible for the prize. Joining us now is NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton.

Thanks for joining us, Jon.

JON HAMILTON: Good to be here.

NEARY: Let's start with this scientist who died. Who was he, and why might his death make him ineligible for the Nobel Prize?

HAMILTON: Well, he was named Ralph Steinman and he was born in Montreal in 1943. He went on to Harvard and later, starting in 1970 he affiliated with Rockefeller University in New York. In recent years, Steinman had been battling pancreatic cancer, and apparently he died on September 30th. Now, Rockefeller University issued a statement, saying they didn't learn about his death from Steinman's family until this morning. And the Nobel Foundation seemed totally unaware of it when they made the announcement. Now, the problem is that the Nobel rules state that in order to win, you have to be alive when the announcement is made. So, we're waiting to hear what they are going to do.

NEARY: And as we're waiting, in the meantime, what did Ralph Steinman do to be considered for the Nobel?

HAMILTON: Well, he discovered something called dendritic cells. They are really important part of the immune system because they act like sort of sentinels. They send messages when something is attacking the body. You find these cells in the skin, in the stomach, in the lungs; places that are in contact with the environment and usually would be the first to attacked by something. They're important because they are involved not only in fighting infections, including HIV, but because they also help the body resist cancer cells. Now I understand that Dr. Steinman was actually undergoing a treatment for his pancreatic cancer that involved some of the work he did on dendritic cells.

NEARY: How interesting. Now I know there are two other winners, and who are they?

HAMILTON: Well, one of them is Bruce Beutler. He was born in 1957 in Chicago. He's chairman of genetics at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego; has been for many years, though I should add that I think he's heading for a new job later this year as director of the department of genetics at the University of Texas.

And then there's Jules Hoffman. He was born in 1941 in Luxembourg.

NEARY: And why did these two scientists win a share of the prize?

HAMILTON: Well, they did some really important work on what's called the innate immune system. It's also known as the nonspecific immune system. It deals with sort of general threats.

A way to think about it is that when we get a vaccine to protect us from say this year's flu our body gears up to something very specific. The innate immune system is for general threats; stuff our body doesn't recognize.

NEARY: And were all three of these scientists working on exactly the same thing?

HAMILTON: No. Bruce Beutler and Jules Hoffman discovered different substances in the body that can recognize micro-organisms that pose a threat and then activate this innate immune system. Hoffman discovered something called the toll gene that is a key part of this process - a least it is in fruit flies. And Beutler did a lot of work on mammals, trying to understanding the process that can lead to septic shock. You know, that's when the body's immune system responds so extremely to something that the response can actually kill you.

And along the way he discovered something related to this toll gene, but it occurs in mammals. It's called the LPS receptor.

NEARY: NPR s science correspondent Jon Hamilton. Jon, thanks for being with us this morning.

HAMILTON: Great to be here.

NEARY: And you're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.