Steinman tested Nobel-Prize winning research on himself

Nobel-Prize winner used his dendritic cell therapy to treat his own cancer

Topics: Oncology, Service Lines

October 12, 2011

Reuters last week profiled Rockefeller University's Ralph Steinman and his efforts to treat his own pancreatic cancer using his Nobel Prize-winning dendritic cell therapy. 

Steinman on Oct. 3 received the 2011 Nobel Prize in medicine for his immunology research and his 1973 discovery of dendritic cells, which allowed for the creation of the first therapeutic cancer vaccine. However, just three days prior to receiving the award, Steinman died after a four-and-a-half-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

Diagnosis intensified research efforts

Although friends and colleagues say Steinman always had been dedicated to conducting research that would make a difference in the lives of others, that focus intensified after Steinman was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Reuters reports. Given only one year to live, Steinman "shared the cancer patient's sense of urgency that we identify new and effective treatments," said Louis Weiner, director of the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

In an effort to beat his own cancer and develop a cure for others, Steinman opted to receive all available conventional therapies, including chemotherapy, and unproven treatments, such as an experimental melanoma vaccine and the dendritic cell therapy he had helped develop. For the dendritic cell therapy, Steinman received eight to nine doses of dendritic cells made from his own blood and blood precursor cells.

According to Reuters, Steinman wanted to test each treatment sequentially so that he could publish his findings and help others, but family and friends pushed him to try treatment simultaneously. "We literally had to argue with him that it was only going to be a case report anyway," said Sarah Schlesinger, Steinman's clinical lab director at Rockefeller.

In the end, Steinman lived more than three years longer than expected. Although colleagues say it is impossible to determine which treatments prolonged his life, Steinman himself believed it was the dendritic cell therapy, Reuters reports.

Medical community rallied to help Steinman

According to Michel Nussenzweig, Rockefeller's head of molecular immunology, the medical community rallied to help Steinman try the dendritic cell therapy on himself. Although all tests were approved by U.S. regulators and followed appropriate protocols, many expedited tasks and paperwork to facilitate the process. For example, FDA regulators completed tasks that ordinarily might take months in only a few days (Steenhuysen/Nichols, Reuters, 10/6).