On Sunday the Nobel Committee tried to phone Ralph Steinman to inform him he was to receive the highest scientific honor. But he didn’t pick up because two days prior to the call he had died of pancreatic cancer. An illness which he may have just fallen short of being able to overcome with his own discovery.
Dendritic cells was the name he gave to the strange shapes he saw in a mouse’s spleen in 1972. They proved to be the orchestrators of the body’s defense mechanism; the missing link between non-specific and specific immunity which had been sought for years. His results, however, received little recognition. Other laboratories were not able to reproduce them so he was not taken seriously and was even derided at conferences – skepticism is what they call it in science. He had to wait nearly ten years before others were able to reproduce his experiments such that they could see what he had seen a decade previously: cells which explained a large part of the functioning of the immune system and which would form the basis of a new generation of cancer drugs and, possibly, an HIV-vaccine.
I don’t know whether our generation is able to do that. Work single-handedly and single-mindedly on one problem. Not for one year, not for ten years, but for forty years. Be abused and ignored, carry on and eventually be proved right, just like Steinman. He risked his career as well as the real possibility that his discovery would remain forever unacknowledged and eventually be forgotten, but he did not have an identity crisis, he did not need a coach and did not consider a change of vocation; he just carried on. Forty years, one subject.
Steinmann also investigated whether dendritic cells could possibly help him with his pancreatic cancer. He mixed dendritic cells with his own tumor cells and injected them under his skin, but it didn’t work. At least not completely. He lived four years longer than the average patient with the same diagnosis. But then again, that could also be a coincidence. He was the only test person and there was no control group. The results of his of his experimental treatment of his own tumor have, so far, been received with skepticism. Typical.
(A dutch version of this column was published in the newspaper nrc.next in november 2011.)