October 2011: Two of the scientists who have won this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine for discoveries on the immune system are Jews. One of the winners, Montreal-born Ralph Steinman
did not live long enough to learn of his achievement. A scientist at New York’s Rockefeller University, Steinman lost his four-year fight against pancreatic cancer just three days before the Nobel committee made its announcement.
Steinman was cited by the Nobel committee for his discoveries about the immune system. A statement from Rockefeller University in New York, where the cell biologist had carried out his research since 1970, said Steinman had been treated with immunotherapy based on his discovery of dendritic cells. These cells help regulate adaptive immunity, an immune system response that purges invading micro-organisms from the body.
“He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago, and his life was extended using a dendritic-cell based immunotherapy of his own design,” the university said. Steinman, recently given a gleaming new lab in his role as head of Rockefeller University’s Center for Immunology and Immune Diseases, has received many recognitions for his work, including the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research in 2007 and the Canadian Gairdner Award in 2003.
“For several years, we’ve been wondering and hoping that Ralph Steinman might be winning the Nobel Prize, and today when I heard that he won it, I was delighted,” said Dr. Lorne Tyrrell of the University of Alberta, chair of the Gairdner Foundation board that selected him as a winner. And then I felt cheated and it was such a cruel turn of fate to find out that he passed away on Friday, because I think nothing would have made him happier near the end of his life, to have heard that he won the Nobel Prize,” Tyrrell said from Kyoto, Japan, where he was attending a conference.
Dr. John Dirks, Gairdner Foundation president and scientific director, said Steinman was a great researcher who knew his science and critiqued it well. “He liked Canada a lot, loved Canada, his family is still here in large part and just a great person and almost an ideal image of a creative scientist,” Dirks said in an interview from Japan. “We’ll miss him in every respect. I can’t imagine how sad this is just a few minutes before everyone hears of this great honour and the next moment we realize that he died over the weekend.”
Alan Bernstein, a fellow Canadian who got to know Steinman during his 3 1/2-year tenure as head of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise in New York, said he was shocked and saddened to hear of the death of his friend and colleague. Bernstein said Steinman took him under his scientific wing when he first arrived in New York in 2008 and the two would celebrate Canada Day together each year. “Ralph was a wonderful human being, so his passing, aside from the Nobel, is very sad news indeed. He was a very warm-hearted individual, very open.”
Steinman’s discovery dates back to 1973, when he found a new cell type, the dendritic cell, which has a unique capacity to activate T-cells. Those cells have a key role in adaptive immunity, when antibodies and killer cells fight infections. They also develop a memory that helps the immune system mobilize its defences next time it comes under a similar attack.
The Nobel committee also cited Beutler and Hoffmann for their discoveries in the 1990s of receptor proteins that can recognize bacteria and other micro-organisms as they enter the body, and activate the first line of defence in the immune system, known as innate immunity.
The trio’s discoveries have enabled the development of improved vaccines against infectious diseases. In the long term they could also yield better treatments of cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and chronic inflammatory diseases, Hansson said.
The discoveries have helped scientists understand why the immune system sometimes attacks its own tissues, paving the way for new ways to fight inflammatory diseases, Hansson said. “They have made possible the development of new methods for preventing and treating disease, for instance with improved vaccines against infections and in attempts to stimulate the immune system to attack tumours,” the committee said. No vaccines are on the market yet, but Hansson said that vaccines against hepatitis are in the pipeline. “Large clinical trials are being done today,” he said.
Beutler, 53, is professor of genetics and immunology at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, Calif. Hoffmann, 70, headed a research laboratory in Strasbourg, France, between 1974 and 2009 and served as president of the French National Academy of Sciences between 2007-2008.
Hoffmann’s discovery came in 1996 during research on how fruit flies fight infections. Two years later, Beutler’s research on mice showed that fruit flies and mammals activate innate immunity in similar ways when attacked by germs.
Dr. Steinman was a great scientist. The 68-year-old physician had managed to prolong his own life using a new dendritic cell-based immunotherapy of his own design based on the same research that last year contributed to the launch of the world’s first vaccine to kill tumours. The research is now being used to create a vaccine against hepatitis.
U.S. citizen Bruce Beutler was the second Jewish scientist to be awarded the 2011 Nobel prize for medicine Monday. Beutler, 53, is based at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. Beutler and Luxembourg-born biologist Jules Hoffman, 70, studied the first stages of immune responses to attack. The two scientists will share half of the $1.5 million award. It is not clear what will happen with the other half, which was to go to Steinman.
“This year’s Nobel laureates have revolutionized our understanding of the immune system by discovering key principles for its activation,” the award panel at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute said in a statement in Stockholm.
Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for a discovery that faced skepticism and mockery, even prompting his expulsion from his research team, before it won widespread acceptance as a fundamental breakthrough. Shechtman, a 70-year-old distinguished professor at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel.
Shechtman, also is professor of materials science and engineering at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. While doing research in the U.S. in 1982, Shechtman discovered a new chemical structure; “quasicrystals”, that researchers previously thought was impossible. He was studying a mix of aluminum and manganese in an electron microscope when he found the atoms were arranged in a pattern, similar to one in some traditional Islamic mosaics that never repeated itself and appeared contrary to the laws of nature. He concluded that science was wrong but it would take years for him and other researchers to prove that he was right.
Since then, quasicrystals have been produced in laboratories and a Swedish company found them in one of the most durable kinds of steel, which is now used in products such as razor blades and thin needles made specifically for eye surgery, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences stated. Quasicrystals are also being studied for use in new materials that convert heat to electricity. They were first discovered in nature in Russia in 2009.
Despite the initial reluctance in the scientific community to accept his discovery, it “fundamentally altered how chemists conceive of solid matter,” the academy stated in its citation for the 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) award. In chemical terms, a crystal is traditionally defined as a regular and repeating arrangement of atoms within a material. A quasicrystal presents a pattern that scientists had thought was impossible. The pattern of atoms within a material influences the material’s physical properties.
“His battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter,” the academy stated.Nancy B. Jackson, president of the American Chemical Society called Shechtman’s discovery “one of these great scientific discoveries that go against the rules.” When Shechtman announced it, other experts hesitated. “People didn’t think that this kind of crystal existed,” she stated. “They thought it was against the rules of nature.”
Only later did some scientists go back to some of their own inexplicable findings and realized they had seen quasicrystals but not realized what they had, Jackson said. Staffan Normark, permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy stated Shechtman’s discovery was one of the few Nobel Prize-winning achievements that can be dated to a single day.
Crystallographers always believed that all crystals have rotational symmetry, so that when they are rotated, they look the same. On April 8, 1982, while on a sabbatical at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards and Technology in Washington, D.C., Shechtman first observed crystals with 10 points, pentagonal symmetry, which most scientists said was impossible.
“I told everyone who was ready to listen that I had material with pentagonal symmetry. People just laughed at me,” Shechtman stated in a description of his work released by his university. For months he tried to persuade his colleagues of his find, but they refused to accept it. Finally he was asked to leave his research group, and moved to another one within the institute.
Shechtman returned to Israel, where he found one colleague prepared to work with him on an article describing the phenomenon. The article was at first rejected, but finally published in November 1984 to uproar in the scientific world. Double Nobel winner Linus Pauling was among those who never accepted the findings.
In 1987, friends of Shechtman in France and Japan succeeded in growing crystals large enough for x-rays to repeat and verify what he had discovered with the electron microscope. “It borders on art,” academy member Sara Snogerup Linse said of the quasicrystal patterns. “Humans have created similar patterns in macroscopic scale with the help of ceramic tiles, quilts, etc. But what was new was that it was found also in the world of molecules and atoms.”
Cesar Pay Gomez, a structural chemistry expert at Uppsala University in Sweden and an adviser to the prize committee, said research on quasicrystals is ongoing “in the field of thermal-electric applications, where waste heat can be converted to electrical currents or energy.”
The Nobel Prize in chemistry announcement capped this year’s science awards.
U.S.-born scientists Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess won the physics prize for discovering that the universe is expanding at an accelerating pace.
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