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Nobel Winner Dies Before Award, Panel Stands By Choice

  • RFE/RL

A graphic displayed at the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm shows the three winners on October 3.

A graphic displayed at the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm shows the three winners on October 3.

One of three scientists who have been named as a 2011 Nobel laureate in medicine died on September 30 -- making him technically ineligible to be a candidate for the award according to the Nobel Foundation's statutes.

But the head of the Nobel committee, Goeran Hansson, says the assembly at Karolinska Institute was unaware that 68-year-old Canadian scientist Ralph Steinman had been dead for three days and would stand by its choice.

Hansson told the Swedish news agency TT on October 3 that the assembly can "only regret that he could not experience the joy" of being named as a Nobel laureate.

Also named to share the prize with Steinman were Bruce Beutler of the United States, Jules Hoffmann of Luxembourg. All three scientists were being honored for their pioneering work on the immune system. The jury said their work opened up new prospects for curing cancer and other diseases.

Since 1974, the statues of the Nobel Foundation have stipulated that a Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously unless the recipient dies between the announcement of the award and the formal ceremony later in the year.

But the statues also say that once the award has been announced, the decision is final and cannot be appealed.

After today's vote was announced in Stockholm by the Nobel committee, Steinman's employer -- Rockefeller University in New York -- announced that he had died three days earlier from cancer.

The statement said Steinman was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four years ago and that his life had been extended until September 30 using immunotherapy of his own design.

Before 1974, the Nobel Prize had only been awarded posthumously twice -- the Nobel Peace Prize to Dag Hammarskjold in 1961 and the Nobel Prize in Literature to Erik Axel Karlfeldt in 1931.

Since 1974 when the ban on posthumous candidates went into effect, the award has only been given posthumously once. That happened in 1996 when William Vickrey died only a few days after it was announced that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Nobel Assembly member Hans-Gustaf Ljunggren claims each of the three scientists named on October 3 had advanced humanity's understanding of immunology -- the body's complex defense system in which signaling molecules unleash antibodies and killer cells in response to invading germs and viruses:

"Together, Bruce Beutler, Jules Hoffmann, Ralph Steinman have revolutionized our understanding of the immune system by discovering key principles for its activation" he said. "By this, they have provided novel insights into disease mechanisms. They have opened up new avenues for prevention and therapy-related research within infectious diseases, cancer, inflammation, auto-immunity and vaccine development."

Understanding this is a key to new drugs and also to easing immune disorders, such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and Crohn's disease.

Beutler and Hoffmann will receive one half of the $1.48 million prize money for discovering the receptor proteins that activate the first step in the body's immune response system.

Steinman was named to receive the other half of the prize money. Hansson said the Nobel Committee will review what to do with Steinman's prize money but would not name a substitute winner.

Steinman in 1973 discovered the dendritic cells that allow the immune system to identify and attack harmful micro-organisms while staying clear of the body's own endogenous molecules.

The prize is to be awarded at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896

Record Peace List

The announcement of the 2011 Nobel Prize in medicine is to be followed during the course of the next week by the awards for physics, chemistry, literature, and peace. The economics award -- not technically a Nobel, as it was established by Sweden's central bank in 1968 -- is to be announced on October 10.

The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, perhaps the most watched of the prestigious awards, will be revealed on October 7 in Oslo, and the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee has a record 241 nominees to choose from, the list of which is kept a well-guarded secret.

Some observers are predicting that this year's Nobel Peace Prize could go to activists involved in the Arab Spring uprising, which led to the overthrow of autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and rattled the regimes in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain.

Other names circulating as possible winners are Afghan human rights activist Sima Samar, the Russian human rights organization Memorial, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and the European Union.

Last year the Nobel Peace Prize went to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

The prizes were first awarded in 1901 in accordance with the will of dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel.

with agency reports