Two out of three of the scientists who have won this year's Nobel Prize in medicine for discoveries on the immune system are Jews.
But in a poignant development, one of the winners, Montreal-born Ralph Steinman did not live long enough to learn of his achievement.
A scientist at New York's Rockefeller University, Steinman lost his four-year fight against pancreatic cancer just three days before the Nobel committee made its announcement.
The 68-year-old physician had managed to prolong his own life using a new dendritic cell-based immunotherapy of his own design based on the same research that last year contributed to the launch of the world's first vaccine to kill tumors. The research is now being used to create a vaccine against hepatitis.
The Nobel committee only became aware of the news when secretary-general Goran Hansson's staff could not reach Steinman to tell him he had won the prize – information that was a closely-guarded secret until it was announced publicly.
“I am, of course, saddened that Dr. Steinman could not receive this news and feel that happiness,” Hansson told Reuters. “He was a great scientist.”
Steinman's death creates a dilemma for the committee, which is required to choose a living scientist. The committee has announced that no substitute prize winner will be announced.
U.S. citizen Bruce Beutler was the second Jewish scientist to be awarded the 2011 Nobel prize for medicine Monday. Beutler, 53, is based at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.
Beutler and Luxembourg-born biologist Jules Hoffman, 70, studied the first stages of immune responses to attack. The two scientists will share half of the $1.5 million award. It is not clear what will happen with the other half, which was to go to Steinman.
“This year's Nobel laureates have revolutionized our understanding of the immune system by discovering key principles for its activation,” the award panel at Sweden's Karolinska Institute said in a statement in Stockholm.