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Nobel Prize for medicine goes to immune system pioneers

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The Nobel Prize committee honored three scientists whose work on the immune system has paved the way for new treatment and prevention methods against cancer and infectious diseases.

Three scientists whose work on the immune system has paved the way for new approaches to disease treatment and prevention won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in Stockholm, Sweden, on Monday.

The three scientists were American Bruce Beutler and French scientist Jules Hoffmann, who jointly shared half the 10 million-kronor ($1.5 million) award, and Canadian-born Ralph Steinman, the recipient of the other half.

The Nobel committee said in a written statement that they have "revolutionized our understanding of the immune system by discovering key principles for its activation."

Dr. Steinman died Friday, but the Nobel committee was not aware of his death until after announcing the winners on Monday. While Nobels are not, as a rule, awarded posthumously, the committee decided, by mid-afternoon Eastern time, to stick with its decision because they did not hear about his death until after its announcement.

Understanding the First Two Stages of Immunity

Dr. Beutler and Dr. Hoffman discovered, in 1996, protein receptors in fruit flies and mice that recognize bacteria microorganisms and activate the first stage in the immune response, which is called innate immunity.

Since their discovery, more than a dozen such protein receptors have been found in the human body.

Dr. Steinman discovered, in 1973, dendritic cells, which help decide whether to kick in the second stage of the immune response, called adaptive immunity.

The dendritic cells activate T-cells, which are central to this stage, in which antibodies and killer cells fight and clear infections from the body. They also retain the memory of the infection, helping the body rally defenses next time it experiences a similar attack.

Dr. Steinman, who died of pancreatic cancer Friday at the age of 68, designed his own dendritic cell-based immunotherapy, which he used to extend his life.

Potential Applications

"Their work has opened up new avenues for the development of prevention and therapy against infections, cancer and inflammatory disease," the Nobel committee said of the three scientists.

Prize committee member Hans-Gustav Ljunggren told The Associated Press that drug companies are using these discoveries to develop better vaccines, some of which (such as for hepatitis) are now in large clinical trials.

Eventually, their discoveries could also be used to improve prevention methods and treatments for diseases such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and chronic inflammatory diseases.

Dr. Beutler is a professor of genetics and immunology at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. Dr. Hoffmann headed a research laboratory in Strasbourg, France, from 1974 to 2009 and served as president of the French National Academy of Sciences from 2007 to 2008.

Dr. Steinman headed the Center for Immunology and Immune Diseases at Rockefeller University in New York.

This is the first in a weeklong string of Nobel Prize announcements by Stockholm's Karolinska institute that will recognize achievements in physics, chemistry, literature, peace and economics.

via: Associated Press, BBC, CNN, Rockefeller University

  • Post updated at 3:23pm EDT with information on Dr. Steinman's death and the Nobel committee's decision to bestow the award on him though Nobel prize rules normally prohibit posthumous awards.

To read about last week's Ig Nobel prizes, honoring some of the silliest science of the past year, click here.

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure