Nobel Winner for Cancer Research Dies of Cancer Before He Gets Prize

syringeIt's unbelievably ironic: Ralph Steinman, a scientist who won the Nobel Prize for medicine for his groundbreaking cancer research, died only days before the honor was announced Monday, never learning that his work had been awarded his field's highest honor. What's more, Steinman died of the very disease he sought to cure: cancer.

But while the Canadian-born physician, who was affiliated with New York's Rockefeller University, did not live to see that he'd received the Nobel Prize, the strides he made in research for the disease will live on -- and will no doubt save others after him.

As someone who has watched close family struggle with the disease, I know firsthand the devastation and despair surrounding it. Hope for a cure often seems remote, nearly unreachable, but Steinman has helped bring it much closer.

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The doctor died Friday after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer, initially throwing into doubt whether he was even eligible for the award. The Nobel Prize is only supposed to be given to the living.

One of the most compelling parts of this story is that Steinman used treatments based on his own research on himself -- which ultimately extended his life (but sadly couldn't save it: pancreatic cancer has a particularly high fatality rate).

Steinman, who worked until just days before his death, did research that led to the first vaccine approved for use to kill tumors, which was released last year. He discovered that certain cells in the body (called dendritic cells) could be used as its own defense against tumors and infections.

The amazing thing? His work may be used not only to help provide vaccines against cancer, but also improve the ones for infectious diseases that we have now.

And so, as sad as his death is, and as poignant the timing, there's no question that Steinman's was a life well-lived, a life with remarkable purpose and transformative results. We can imagine that -- while he is said to have joked with his family about living until the Nobel Prize winners were announced -- he died satisfied that his work would help others live longer, better, healthier lives.

Do you keep up with Nobel Prize winners?

 

Image via Andres Rueda/Flickr

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