American Society of Hematology

Nobel Prize in Medicine Goes to Two Physician Scientists With Close Ties to ASH

Published on: November 01, 2011

ASH member Ralph M. Steinman, MD, of Rockefeller University in New York was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for his pioneering discovery of dendritic cells and their role as critical antigen presenting cells of the immune system. Unfortunately, Dr. Steinman never knew of this great honor; he died after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer unbeknownst to the prize committee on Friday, September, 30, just days before the announcement. Dr. Steinman was born in Montreal, Canada, on January 14, 1943, and, having graduated from McGill University, went on to receive his medical degree, magna cum laude, from Harvard Medical School. While a postdoctoral fellow at Rockefeller, he began research on primary white cells in the immune system and later concentrated on the role of dendritic cells, a term that he coined, in immune responses.

Dr. Steinman shared the award with two other physician scientists, Bruce Beutler, from University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Scripps Research Center, and Jules Hoffmann, from University of Strasbourg. Dr. Hoffmann discovered a family of cellular receptors, termed “Toll,” in fruit flies that are activated by pathogenic bacteria. Dr. Beutler, a former ASH member and son of the late Ernest Beutler, MD, who was a prominent hematologist and past ASH president, then identified a related family of innate immune receptors in mammalian white blood cells now known as Toll-like receptors (TLRs). These receptors, when stimulated by endogenous or exogenous “danger signals” such as bacterial endotoxin, activate the immune system and can cause septic shock. These landmark discoveries laid the foundation for innovative approaches to treat or prevent sepsis and to stimulate the immune system to attack tumors.

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