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Ralph Steinman: the most recent Canadian Nobel Prize winner

Way back in the 19th Century, I guess it was 1868, a student of physiology in Germany had prepared a microscope slide of interesting cells forming a network under human skin.

Way back in the 19th Century, I guess it was 1868, a student of physiology in Germany had prepared a microscope slide of interesting cells forming a network under human skin. In fact they formed a network extending under the entire layer of skin on the body. They were everywhere, so Paul Langerhans, still a student, decided that they must be the nerve cells which respond to touch. You remember young Paul because the next year, 1869, he discovered and described what are known as ‘the Islands of Langerhans’ which, today, we know are the cells of the pancreas which produce insulin.
The cells he discovered under the skin, were rediscovered just a little over a century later by Ralph Steinman, a very young, lowly post-doctoral fellow.  They appeared to be a new kind of blood cell with long branching projections, which he named dendritic cells (dendros = tree in Greek). Many years before he found them under the skin, he reported them in the spleen, but almost always just a few.
Not knowing about the cells in the skin, other leading immunology labs around the world looked for the cells but were unable to find them or reproduce his work. They declared that what he found were merely damaged cells of types that were already well known. When he or his students reported on his dendritic cells or their functions, the response from the audience often was “abusive.” They argued, laughed and left. They simply did not believe these cells existed. In fact, it was such a prolonged negative response that it was almost 20 years before even the existence of dendritic cells was universally accepted. The problem was that it was very difficult to find and isolate these cells in the spleen and it wasn’t until sophisticated cell sorting machines were invented that many other labs could find the elusive cells. If they had realized that the cells under the skin were also dendritic cells, recognition would have come much earlier.
Ralph Steinman established, through very intensive and careful research, that dendritic cells played the most important  role in mediating our response to infection, cancer and tissue rejection when you need a kidney or heart transplant. This knowledge became central to the development of vaccines to treat infections and cancers, and anti-rejection drugs.
 Now that Steinman’s work has been vindicated he has been celebrated around the world. He didn’t receive the Nobel Prize until three days after his death on September 30, 2011, but many other awards and honors had already been heaped upon him. His awards include some of the most remunerative in North America. The value of all these prizes was passed on to assist young researchers in their struggles for recognition. His family has committed to contributing his almost three quarters of a million dollar share of the Nobel Prize to the same cause.
Ralph Steiman was born in Montreal in 1943. but his family moved to Sherbrook, Quebec where his father established a men’s clothing store, ‘Mozarts’. He completed high school there, working weekends at the family store. He returned to Montreal to attend McGill University where he received his undergraduate degree. He moved to Harvard Medical School on scholarship and did his internship at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In an unusual move for a medical doctor, he accepted his pivotal post-doctoral fellowship at Rockefeller University where he remained for the rest of his distinguished career.
When Steinman was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer in 2007, he had already begun testing the effect of dendritic cells on the rejection of cancers, but only at the earliest stages. Nevertheless, in cooperation with his cancer trial supervisor, he set up a special trial to study the effect of dendritic cell therapy on his own cancer. He survived well past the expected time for pancreatic cancer and was able to function at his work very well until he suddenly deteriorated and passed away. It is very probable that his life was extended, allowing him to continue his work on cellular cancer therapies and a very promising AIDS vaccine undergoing extensive trials at the time of his death.
Although Steinman lived in New York, he remained a Canadian citizen and was a regular visitor to his family in Montreal including his aged mother (who insisted that all her children are equally wonderful – a mother’s right). He also served on Canadian Science committees at the highest levels along with many of our other Nobel Laureates.
Ralph Steinman was married with a son and twin daughters and at least 3 grand children. He was a young married post-doc when he discovered dendritic cells. He stated in one of his scientific papers that he almost named the cells after his wife. He claimed that she also had ‘long attractive extremities’.
He will be remembered for his sense of humor and his enormous kindness and generosity as well as for his gift of immune system understanding and hope through the application of his discoveries in cancer and infectious disease therapies as well as a better understanding of rejection of organ transplants.