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Three Cancer Research Institute Scientists to Receive 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Bruce Beutler, Jules Hoffmann, and Ralph Steinman to receive top award in science

The Nobel Foundation announced yesterday that three immunologists will receive the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their fundamental discoveries on immune system recognition of infection. Drs. Bruce Beutler, chairman of the department of genetics at The Scripps Research Institute, and Jules Hoffmann, research director for the National Center of Scientific Research in France, will share one-half the prize, and Dr. Ralph Steinman, a professor of cellular physiology and immunology at The Rockefeller University, will receive the other half.

Sadly, concurrent with the award announcement yesterday the world also learned that Dr. Steinman passed away on Friday after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. The Nobel Foundation has decided to bestow the award posthumously on Dr. Steinman.

All three scientists have long and strong connections with the Cancer Research Institute, and we therefore take great pride in this superlative honor, which reflects both on the important contributions these individual scientists have made as well as on the prominence of immunology and, increasingly, tumor immunology, in the advancement of new approaches to the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases and cancer.

William B. Coley Award to Nobel Prize Winners

The three Nobel Prize winners are former recipients of the Cancer Research Institute’s top scientific honor, the William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research in Basic and Tumor Immunology (Steinman in 1998, Hoffmann in 2003, and Beutler in 2006). CRI honored Dr. Steinman for his discovery of the dendritic cell, a fundamental immune system cell responsible for alerting other components of the immune system to danger from infection and cancer. Drs. Beutler and Hoffmann received the Coley Award for their independent work in identifying the toll receptor (Hoffmann in fruit flies) and toll-like receptor gene (Beutler in mammals) involved in the activation of the innate immune response. Beutler, Hoffmann, and Steinman join the list of other past Coley Award recipients who have since gone on to receive the Nobel Prize and other major scientific awards, underscoring the Coley Award selection committee’s foresight and the award’s significance as a predictor of future recognition by others outside the fields of immunology or tumor immunology.

Direct CRI Funding to Nobel Prize Winners

Ralph Steinman:

In 1980, CRI supported Dr. Steinman’s first study on the potential for dendritic cells to orchestrate immune attack on tumors. It was his first tumor immunology study, proposed at a time when few believed that the immune system could be trained to fight cancer. CRI continued to support Dr. Steinman’s lab by awarding postdoctoral fellowships to two scientists in his laboratory, Dr. Jonathan Austyn (currently a professor of immunobiology and principal investigator in the dendritic cell research group at Oxford University John Radcliffe Hospital) and Dr. Angela Granelli-Piperno (who has since published work on HIV infection in dendritic cells and the role of lymphokines in autoimmune disorders). CRI’s seed support of Dr. Steinman’s then highly unconventional idea laid the foundation for his future studies on dendritic cell vaccines for cancer.

In 1998, CRI awarded Dr. Steinman a grant to support a preclinical study of active immunotherapy against lymphoma by antigen-presenting dendritic cells. Such vaccines have since become a major focus of research and development, and Provenge™, the first FDA-approved therapeutic cancer vaccine for prostate cancer, is based on the dendritic cell vaccine technology Dr. Steinman pioneered. It has been reported that Dr. Steinman himself was a patient in a study of his own dendritic cell vaccine for pancreatic cancer, and he credited the vaccine with extending his life.

Jules Hoffmann:

Dr. Hoffmann’s exploration of the innate immune system and its activation bears central importance to CRI’s ongoing efforts to determine optimal vaccination strategies in the treatment of cancer. A critical step in successful vaccination is stimulation of the non-specific (innate) immune system—first-line responders to infection and damaged cells that provide broad protection against bacteria and fungi and also play an important role in the activation of cancer-specific (adaptive) immunity.

In addition to the 2003 Coley Award, CRI provided postdoctoral fellowship support to Dr. Hoffmann’s laboratory in 1995, to Dr. Sarah Ades for her work to clone and characterize the lipopolysaccharide pattern recognition receptor in the innate immune response of fruit flies (drosophila). Dr. Ades is currently an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Pennsylvania State University.

Bruce Beutler:

Dr. Beutler took Dr. Hoffmann’s work in the fruit fly and found the corresponding innate immune system receptor in mammals, bringing Hoffmann’s important discoveries to bear on the treatment of human disease. The Beutler lab has received CRI funding in the form of postdoctoral fellowships for Dr. Carrie N. Arnold (2007) and Dr. Amanda L. Blasius (2008), to support their respective studies of mammalian resistance to viral infection and genetic analysis of the type 1 interferon response to toll-like receptor 9. CRI also funded two members of Dr. Beutler’s lab in 2006 (Dr. Kasper Hoebe and Dr. Zhengfan Jiang) in their genetic analysis of “cancer proof” SR/CR mice from the laboratory of Dr. Zheng Cui.

We congratulate Drs. Beutler and Hoffmann on their outstanding accomplishment, and extend our congratulations to Dr. Steinman’s family as well as our condolences on their loss of a beloved family member, who was also a highly respected colleague and long-time friend of tumor immunology and the Cancer Research Institute.

References: Nobel Foundation News Release Announcing the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Interview with Dr. Steinman in The Researcher, a publication of the Cancer Research Institute

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