Infection Detection Wins Nobel Prize for Three Scientists

Dr. Bruce Beutler
Dr. Bruce Beutler of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. Photographer: Mike Groll/AP Photo

Three scientists won the Nobel Prize in medicine for research illuminating how the body’s immune system recognizes infection and marshals an attack against it, an award made three days after one of the men died.

Jules A. Hoffmann, born in Luxembourg, and Bruce A. Beutler, an American, will share half the 10 million-kronor ($1.5 million) award for studying gene mutations that helped explain how the body activates its first line of defense against microscopic invaders, the Nobel Assembly said today in a statement. Ralph M. Steinman, born in Canada, died at age 68 before learning he would receive the award for research into cells that regulate and adapt the defense mechanisms.

The Nobel Foundation said Steinman remains a Nobel winner even though he died on Sept. 30, before the announcement was made. It had been an issue because the foundation bars the award from being given posthumously. The committee wasn’t aware of his death when the prize was announced, it said in a statement.

“The events that have occurred are unique, and, to the best of our knowledge, are unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Prize,” the foundation said in a statement on its web site. “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 three scientists’ research provided a basis for better vaccines against infections and also for new drugs that harness the immune system to fight cancer, the assembly said. The first of such so-called therapeutic cancer vaccines, Dendreon Corp.’s Provenge, won approval in the U.S. last year.

Cancer Therapy

Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago, Steinman extended his life using an immunotherapy he had designed himself, New York-based Rockefeller University, where Steinman was a professor of cellular physiology and immunology, said today in a statement on its website.

Steinman was the only patient in a trial of the experimental therapy, and was treated at the university, Joseph Bonner, a Rockefeller spokesman, said in a telephone interview. His death hadn’t been publicly announced before today, Bonner said.

Beutler, born in Chicago, is a professor of genetics and immunology at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. The 53-year-old, who received his medical doctorate from the University in Chicago in 1981, said today that he is returning to work at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

‘One Gene at a Time’

“My idea right from the beginning, I guess, was to dismantle the immune system one gene at a time so we could track the mutations that cause problems,” Beutler said in an interview by mobile phone today. Beutler said it’s “incredible” to win a Nobel with Hoffman, and with Steinman, whom he met as a young scientist at Rockefeller University.

“I woke up in the middle of the night, and glanced at my cell phone, and the first thing I saw was a message line that just said the words ’Nobel Prize,’” he said. “Needless to say, I grabbed it and started looking at messages. Wow.”

Hoffmann, 70, earned his doctorate from the University of Strasbourg in France and led a research laboratory there from 1974 to 2009. He has French citizenship.

“I didn’t think our contribution would lead to a Nobel Prize,” Hoffmann told reporters by telephone from Shanghai during a press conference in Paris. “We worked on this for 40 years.”

Hoffman, whose mobile phone wasn’t working today, said he found out about the prize from front desk staff at his Shanghai hotel, who contacted him after being flooded with calls from reporters.

Mouse Experiments

Working separately with fruit flies and mice, he and Beutler found that the two types of animals use similar molecules to switch on innate immunity, destroying invading bacteria, fungi and viruses and initiating the inflammation that helps block their attack, according to the Nobel statement.

“The sensors of innate immunity had finally been discovered,” the prize committee said. That “triggered an explosion of research.”

Born in Montreal in 1943, Steinman studied medicine at Harvard University and received his medical doctorate in 1968.

The Canadian researcher discovered the dendritic cell in 1973, the Nobel committee said. Steinman found that the presence of these cells stirred “vivid responses” in the body’s infection-fighting T-cells, the Nobel committee said. Dendritic cells can sense signals from the innate immune reaction, making it possible for the immune system to mobilize T-cells and thwart invaders without attacking the body, Steinman’s research showed.

‘In the Spotlight’

“These discoveries helped to better understand the immune system’s reactions that lead to the eradication of a virus, of cancer cells or of bacteria,” Vincent Serra, chief executive officer of France’s Wittycell SAS, which is developing ingredients to boost vaccines’ effectiveness, said in a telephone interview. “The companies developing products associated to these discoveries are extremely numerous. They are in the spotlight today.”

Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., based in New York, won approval for ipilimumab for melanoma in March. Other companies aiming to follow Provenge onto the therapeutic cancer vaccine market include Oncothyreon Inc. and German drugmaker Merck KGaA with Stimuvax for breast and lung malignancies, and the U.K.’s Oxford BioMedica Plc, with TroVax for prostate, kidney and colorectal cancers.

Laying the Groundwork

“For once the Nobel committee caught this epochal discovery in its early days,” Martin Murphy, chief executive officer of AlphaMed Consulting, who has four decades of health and cancer research experience and has met all three Nobel winners, said in a telephone interview today. “Their research has laid the groundwork for immunotherapy as we know it today.”

Last year’s Nobel prize in medicine went to Robert G. Edwards, a former University of Cambridge professor, for developing in-vitro fertilization.

Annual prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine, peace and literature were established in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, who died in 1896. The Nobel Foundation was established in 1900, and the prizes were first handed out the following year.

An economics prize was created in memory of Nobel by the Swedish central bank. Only the peace prize is awarded outside Sweden, by the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo.

The Nobel Prize in Physics will be announced tomorrow.

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