Laureate's death causes Nobel conundrum

2011-10-03 20:30

Stockholm - The Nobel Committee was facing a conundrum on Monday, after it emerged that one of the three scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine had died.

Canadian-born Ralf M Steinman died at the age of 68 on Friday, the Rockefeller University and Nobel Committee confirmed shortly after the announcement was made in Stockholm.

Steinman and researchers Bruce A Beutler of the United States and Luxembourg-born Jules A Hoffmann were jointly awarded the prize for pioneering research into the human immune system.

Half of the prize money of $1.4m was allocated to Steinman.

"We are studying the statutes, but it appears that deceased cannot be awarded," Nobel Committee secretary Goran K Hansson secretary told Swedish Radio.

The case, he added, was "unique".

Hansson and other members of the Nobel Commitee were in talks a spokeswoman for the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute told dpa, adding that a statement would follow.

According to the Nobel Committee's statutes, a laureate must be alive when the prize is awarded, said Anders Baranyi, the physics prize committee's secretary from 1989-2004.

Dag Hammarskjold

Baranyi said he thought it was unlikely that Steinman would be awarded the prize posthumously.

The last person to be awarded a Nobel after his death was former United Nations secretary general Dag Hammarskjold. The statutes were later changed.

In awarding the prize, the Nobel Assembly said the trio had "revolutionised" the understanding of the immune system and "opened up new avenues" for developing vaccines and therapies "against infections, cancer and inflammatory diseases".

Steinman was cited for his "discovery of the dendritic cell and its role in adaptive immunity" and in particular his discovery of a new cell type in 1973.

Beutler and Hoffmann were cited for discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity, the first step in the body's immune system.

Steinman, who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago, used the dendritic-cell based immunotherapy to extend his own life, according to the Rockefeller University.

The medicine prize is the first of the 2011 Nobels to be announced. The award ceremony is on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death, the Swedish inventor of dynamite who endowed the prizes.