Stephen’s Science Syndicate: Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology

Alfred Nobel

Continuing the series on the Nobel Prizes, this post highlights the 2011 award winners for the study of medicine or physiology.

The award for medicine or physiology has been given 102 times since its inception in 1901. Compared to the awards in physics and chemistry, the Nobel for medicine or physiology has been given to multiple laureates in a given year more so than to one laureate. The prize in medicine or physiology was the third one to be mentioned in Alfred Nobel’s will with the first recipient being Emil von Behringfor his work on blood serum therapy to treat diphtheria and tetanus.

The 2011 Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology was awarded to Bruce Beutler, Jules Hoffmann, and Ralph Steinman with Dr. Beutler and Dr. Hoffman sharing one half of the award while Dr. Steinman sharing the remaining half. The individuals were awarded the prize for their research into the activation of innate immunity as well as the role of dendritic cells in adaptive immunity.

Drs. Beutler and Hoffmann were responsible for revealing the activation mechanisms of how organisms defend themselves, non-specifically, against pathogens. When a pathogen enters an organism, non-specific immunity is the first set of reactions that occur in response to the pathogen. The reactions from non-specific immunity are independent of the type of pathogen until specific immunity takes over. Dr. Steinman was awarded half of the prize for his explanation of what are known as dendritic cells. In the immune system dendritic cells are responsible for presenting pathogens that have entered the body to other parts of the immune system. They act as messengers for the immune system so that the system is aware of an antigen, which is the human body’s marker of a specific pathogen. Once identified, the immune system can then operate to remove or destroy the pathogen, thus developing specific immunity.

Interestingly, this Nobel Prize has set quite a historical precedent. Unbeknownst to the committee, Dr. Steinman had actually died three days prior to the announcement as a result of complications due to pancreatic cancer. In Alfred Nobel’s will, it was stated that the award should not be given posthumously. Given that the award was “made in good faith,” the decision was upheld and Dr. Steinman was therefore the first Nobel Prize winner to win posthumously. Previously, winners have passed away between the announcements in October and ceremonies in December but this appears to be the first posthumous award.

Dr. Beutler is from Chicago, Illinois and currently pursues his research at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California while Dr. Hoffmann is from Echternach, Luxembourg and is now the President of the French Academy of Sciences. Dr. Steinman was born in Montreal, Canada and was working at the Rockefeller University in New York, New York at the time of his death.

Sources: Guardian UK

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