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Ralph Steinman
Ralph Steinman

Trudeau Institute board member wins Nobel--Three days after his death

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A pioneering researcher and long-time board member of the Saranac Lake-based biomedical research center the Trudeau Institute, was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine Monday--three days after his death from pancreatic cancer.

The Nobel committee says it didn't know Canadian-born cell biologist Ralph Steinman had died when it awarded the prize to him and two other scientists. The committee is only supposed to consider living scientists--but it said Monday the decision to award Steinman the prize will remain unchanged.

Steinman served on the Trudeau Institute board of trustees for nearly 30 years. As Chris Knight reports, those who knew Steinman describe him as a brilliant scientist who blazed new trails in the field of immunology.

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Chris Knight
Adirondack Correspondent

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Trudeau Institute Board President Benjamin Brewster said in a statement that Ralph Steiman had a profound influence on the Institute’s direction and success. He described his death as a "major loss for the world of science."

Vince Fischetti, a fellow Trudeau board member and a long-time colleague of Steinman's at Rockefeller University, called it a shame that his friend didn't live to learn that he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

"When I heard this morning that the Nobel Prize was awarded to Ralph Steinman, I said, 'Fantastic. He deserved it,'" Fischetti said. "Then in the next sentence, they said Ralph had passed away, and I hadn't heard that until this morning. So, it's a mixed bag of sadness and happiness that he did receive it." 

Steinman died Friday, four years after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He underwent therapy based on his discovery of the immune system's dendritic cells, for which he won the prize.

Fischetti said Steinman's research was groundbreaking.

"This is one of the key links in our understanding of how the immune system sees the external environment, sees cancer cells, sees tumors, sees bacteria and responds to it in a proper way. The dendritic cell is the sentinel cell. It's a major, major finding."

Steinman joined the Trudeau board of trustees in 1981 and remained on the board for 30 years until he stepped down this summer because of his poor health. He was chair of Trudeau's scientific advisory board at the time of his death.

Fischetti said Steinman was a mentor and an advisor for scientists at Trudeau.

"Ralph was instrumental in keeping the science to a very high degree in that institution, absolutely," he said.

Dr. Steinman is survived by his wife and their three children. He was 68 years old.

For NCPR, I'm Chris Knight in Saranac Lake.

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