Immune system discoveries earn Nobel in medicine

Stockholm: Three scientists won the Nobel Medicine Prize today for work on the immune system, but in a surprising twist the jury learned that one of the winners of the award that cannot be given posthumously had died just days before.

The winners were Bruce Beutler of the United States, Luxembourg-born Jules Hoffmann, who is a naturalised French citizen, and Ralph Steinman of Canada, who it was discovered Monday had died on September 30.

"This year`s Nobel laureates have revolutionised our understanding of the immune system by discovering key principles for its activation," the jury said in a statement.

The three were lauded for their work on the body`s complex defence system in which signalling molecules unleash antibodies and killer cells to respond to invading microbes.

Understanding this throws open the door to new drugs and also tackling immune disorders, such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn`s disease, in which the body mysteriously attacks itself.

"Their work has opened up new avenues for the development of prevention and therapy against infections, cancer and inflammatory diseases," the jury said.

Several hours after the announcement, as the Nobel jury was still struggling to reach the candidates, New York`s Rockefeller University, where Steinman headed the Centre of
Immunology and Immune Diseases, said the laureate had died four days ago of pancreatic cancer, at the age of 68.

The Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously, but Steinman`s death was not known until his university tried to contact him today about his win.

"The news (of the Nobel) is bittersweet, as we also learned this morning from Ralph`s family that he passed a few days ago after a long battle with cancer," the university said in a statement.

It said the laureate had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago and "his life was extended using a dendritic-cell based immunotherapy of his own design."

The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute confirmed to AFP that Steinman had died, but committee secretary Goeran Hansson told the TT news agency no new winners would be named.

"How it will be done in practice to hand out the prize is what we will have to investigate," he said, adding "we are examining the rules."

Beutler, 55, and Hoffmann, 70, who just a few days ago received a joint Shaw prize in Hongkong, were meanwhile set to share one half of the 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.48 million, 1.08 million euros) Nobel prize.

They discovered receptor proteins that activate the first step in the body`s immune system.

Known as the innate response, it acts like a blunt instrument, seeking to swiftly block an assault through inflammation.

Hoffmann, who earlier this month was also awarded the prestigious CNRS gold medal, was in 1996 heading a research laboratory in Strasbourg when his work on how fruit flies combat infections showed that a gene called Toll, known to be involved in embryonal development, helped sense harmful microorganisms and was needed to defend against them.

News of Hoffmann`s win was hailed in his adopted homeland France, with President Nicolas Sarkozy saying the prize was "an honour for the University of Strasbourg, the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), the French scientific community and our entire country."


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