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The Nobel Assembly announced today that three researchers in the field of immunology will share the 2011 Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

By Rachel Nuwer | October 3, 2011

Today’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine honors work in immunology that provides new avenues for prevention and therapy against infections, cancer, and inflammatory disease.

The Prize is shared by three researchers who have “revolutionized our understanding of the immune system” by discovering the “gatekeepers” of this integral defense mechanism, according to the Nobel Assembly’s press release.

Jules Hoffmann, a Luxembourgian based at the University of Strasbourg in France, and Bruce Beutler, an American at Scripps Research Institute in California, share half of the award for discovering receptor proteins that recognize microbes and activate innate immunity. Ralph Steinman, a Canadian cell biologist at Rockefeller University, took the other half of the award for first describing the immune system’s dendritic cells and their role in activating and regulating adaptive immunity, the later stage of immune response responsible for clearing microorganisms from the body. Sadly, Steinman passed away last Friday (September 30), before he got word of his crowning achievement.

Steinman’s “greatest contribution was that he himself really generated the field of dendritic cell biology,” Gerold Schuler, head of the department of dermatology at the University Hospital Erlangen in Germany and Steinman’s former post-doc, told The Scientist in an email. Schuler says there is “no doubt” that Steinman’s work was worthy of a Nobel. The insights Steinman made into dendritic cell biology “are now crucial to understanding and fighting diseases, notably for designing better vaccines,” said Schuler.

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