ONE of the fixed points in the scientific calendar is the announcement, in early October, of the Nobel prizes for chemistry, physics and physiology or medicine. Like politicians eager for ministerial office after an election, scientists who imagine their work might qualify hover discreetly near the telephone awaiting a call from Stockholm. Tradition dictates that the prize for medicine is announced first, and this year it went to three immunologists.
Two, Bruce Beutler, from America, and Jules Hoffmann, from Luxembourg, shared half the prize (5m crowns, or about $730,000) for related work on the way the immune system boots up in the face of invading pathogens. Dr Hoffman found in fruit flies, and Dr Beutler subsequently discovered in mice, a crucial protein-binding mechanism that helps the immune system recognise invaders and trigger an immune response against them.
The other 5m crowns went to Ralph Steinman, from Canada, who discovered the role of dendritic cells in activating some of the immune system’s main cellular troops, known at T-lymphocytes. Or, rather, it would have done, had Dr Steinman not died on September 30th. The posthumous announcement of a Nobel prize is not supposed to happen, because the rules dictate that it can only be awarded to living scientists. Whether the Karolinska Institute, which decides on the winner, was aware of Dr Steinman’s death when it made its choice is unclear, but the announcement of Dr Steinman’s award made no mention of his death.
Update: The Karolinska Institute has issued a statement saying that Dr Steinman will retain his prize: “According to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, work produced by a person since deceased shall not be given an award. However, the statutes specify that if a person has been awarded a prize and has died before receiving it, the prize may be presented…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. This was true – though not at the time of the decision – only a day or so previously…The decision made by the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute thus remains unchanged.”
Jegarakshagan R. Gokul